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Aurora Institute

Frequently Asked Questions

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started

FAQPittsfield School District asked me to be interviewed on video. And I was nervous, as I’ve never done that before. And I know I make faces when I think about something. I was way, way, way out of my comfort zone. So I did a lot of preparation and wrote thorough notes for myself. As these questions are some of the same ones we hear over and over again, I though I’d publish them here in case they are helpful to you. And as always, we would love your thoughts about how to answer the questions more effectively.

#1 Could you explain what competency-based education is to someone who has never heard of it?

In the United States, one of the things that unites us is our common experience of the education system. We know it so well it’s hard for us to take a step back and think about its design. Once you do, it is clear that it was designed with the goal of providing a minimal education to everyone and then to rank and sort students. However it is absolutely impossible for schools to prepare all students for college and career readiness if the system is designed to rank and sort. When students are just passed on with Cs and Ds, they are going to struggle the next year and they are going to struggle even more the next year and the year after that.

Competency education asks the questions, “If we wanted every student to reach college and career readiness, what would it look like? How would we make sure every student builds the foundational skills and the higher order skills they need to be successful in college and in the workplace?” Competency-based education is designed to make sure students are proficient each step of the way.

In the conventional system, the focus was on equality – everyone getting the same curriculum and the same amount of time. In competency-based education, our focus is on equity. The learning experiences and the amount of instructional support may vary, but with explicit learning targets, we can make sure every student reaches proficiency. With a competency-based system, we can better personalize learning for students while still making sure students are all reaching proficiency at each step.

#2 Are there any misconceptions about competency-based education?

There are several misconceptions about competency-based education. First, too many people think of it as just about flexible pacing. They don’t understand the more important issue that we are designing for all students to be successful. It isn’t about flexible use of time but what we do with that time. Some students are going to need more instructional support. If they are missing some of the pre-requisite skills, it will take them longer because they are actually learning more. Second, there are some people who think that because vendors describe their education software products as competency-based, it means that competency-based education is the same as online learning. Competency-based education is about the overall structure of the school and what it takes to make sure students are reaching adequate levels of mastery so they can be successful in more advanced courses. Technology is a tool that can help based on the instructional strategies and professional judgment of teachers.

#3 How does competency-based education fit in the larger concept of student-centered learning?

Competency-based progression is one of the four elements of student-centered learning. The competency-based structure needs to be in place to make sure that the student-centered learning practices are effective and that students are reaching proficiency. The competency-based structure is what is going to make sure that the student-centered practices are equitable – that all students are learning and making progress even if they aren’t exactly at the same place in their learning trajectorys. Schools that are competency-based have created the infrastructure to ensure there is a shared or calibrated understanding of what proficiency means.

There is a second aspect of competency-based education that refers to ensuring students are developing higher order skills. Competency means the ability to transfer skills to new contexts. Therefore, a competency-based progression also means that students have the opportunity to apply their learning.

#4 How does competency-based education work in practice?

There are different competency-based models developing around the country. They all have five elements in place to some degree but will vary in their design, what they emphasize, and practices. We believe that we are still in early stages of innovation and will likely see models become more robust as they learn to use the competency-based infrastructure to offer more personalized options for students.

It is also important to remember that most schools have only been implementing for one, two, or three years. Thus, they haven’t worked out all the kinks in the new system. In fact, most find that after a few years of implementation, there are other major areas of improvement they need to do, including: build assessment literacy or performance-based assessments; learn how to coach and assess students on habits of work; create more flexible schedules for students to be able to apply their learning; build stronger knowledge of the academic disciplines and instructional strategies; and create more personalized approaches by introducing self-directed learning practices so students have more voice and choice.

There are five things you will usually see in competency-based districts and schools.

First, they focus on a broad set of skills. They are clear that they want their graduates to be able to apply their academic skills, which requires building up the higher order skills as well as really practical skills such as communication or problem-solving needed in careers and college.

Second, they will make the learning targets absolutely transparent to students and families, as well as provide transparency on how students are doing in mastering those targets. Teachers agree upon the learning targets and calibrate what proficiency means. This is one of the most important practices, as it reduces variability and embeds accountability into the schools. When a teacher says, “Your student is proficient in fourth grade math,” parents should be able to trust that.

When students know exactly what the learning targets are and what proficiency looks like, it can totally transform the classroom. Students can have voice and choice about how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning. When teachers start to use self-directed learning practices, they can begin to personalize the classroom. They can step out of the front of the classroom and begin to work with students in small groups or individually. Students are on their way to becoming lifelong learners.

One of the big changes is that in competency-based education, teachers and students know exactly how the progress levels and how students are progressing. Thus, it requires honest conversations with parents about what the actual performance levels. If we let students know where they are and give them the instructional support and the tools to be strong learners, they will make progress.

Third, students advance upon demonstrated mastery. The core idea here is that we make sure students have the pre-requisite skills before they advance. It also mean that students may be at different performance levels than their grade level. Students enter school with a range of skills – our goal in competency-based education is to meet them where they are and ensure they make progress. This doesn’t mean we want to track students. We actually want them to become proficient at their grade level by building up their foundational skills, if necessary. It is safe to say that this is one of the hardest changes in competency-based education and you are more likely to see this in more developed models.

Fourth, competency-based schools are organized to provide timely and differentiated support. This is absolutely critical. Schools need to organize schedules so that students can get extra help right away. Students are going to spend more time on the topics that are harder for them. And if they need more instructional support and more time, that’s okay.

Fifth, timely, aligned assessments are rooted in the cycle of learning. There is much more emphasis on formative assessment, as students need to get rapid feedback when they have a misconception or are making errors. There is also more emphasis on performance-based assessment. The important thing is that assessment is designed to help teachers understand where students are in their process of learning so that they can provide the support students need to advance.

One of the more difficult ideas for our policymakers and schools to adjust to is that students should have demonstrated proficiency before they take a summative assessment and that they should be able to take summative assessments as soon as they are ready. Think of it as just-in-time assessments. Yet, many policymakers still think that it is fair to have all students based on age take the same test at the same time of the year. What is fair about students having to waste their time and for us to waste public resources on making students take exams we know that they are not ready for? And can you imagine how demoralizing that is for students.

#5 What are the advantages of CBE over traditional approaches?

Competency-based education offers several important advantages over traditional approaches. First, it is rooted in what we know about how students learn and about how to engage and motivate students. Second, it is designed to create lifelong learners. Third, the transparency within the competency-based system creates accountability within schools. Fourth, it creates more open, collaborative schools, with teachers talking about how to better serve our kids instead of my kids. Fifth, teachers describe more satisfaction and purpose in their job. They are teaching kids, not just teaching a curriculum. They love how engaged students become. And most important, it is designed around ensuring students make progress and build the skills they will need in higher level courses. It is building equity.

AIR has released a very interesting study, Looking Under the Hood of Competency-Based Learning that is worth reading, as it provides insights about how competency-based education benefits students as well as the challenges in implementation.

#6 What are the challenges of implementing CBE?

There are three big challenges:

Whenever ones shares the same experience of going to school from age five to eighteen, it is a big change for everyone to move to another model. So time and energy needs to be invested in engaging teachers, parents, and the broader community in understanding why it is important and how it will be different. This is not a buy-in model where we try to sell an idea. People need a chance to engage in dialogue to get their heads wrapped around this new understanding of how school can be organized.

Second, teachers need to have the opportunity to develop new classroom management strategies for the personalized classroom. If they don’t learn these new practices, they can’t get out of trying to manage everything from the front of the classroom. If they don’t learn these new practices, it is very difficult to be able to meet students where they are – teachers will just keep delivering the grade level curriculum to all students even if they know it isn’t the right thing to do.

Third, too many schools lead with grading without understanding all the pieces that need to be in place. This often causes push back from the community. It’s important to make sure the pieces are in place so teachers can be confident that they know where students are, that students are making progress, and that there is consistency in how teachers determine proficiency. Then the shift to competency-based (or more frequently standards-based) grading is just a natural progression. (See articles on grading).