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Aurora Institute

Getting Ahead of the Curve: Time for a Mid-Course Correction

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

I recently played chess with an eleven-year-old niece who is a much better player than I am. She thinks ahead whereas I am definitely still a novice, a step-by-step player constantly surprised when the next pawn, rook, or knight is bumped off the board.

When I read an op-ed titled Proficiency is a flawed model for education regarding proficiency-based education in Maine, I realized that as a field we are operating as novices with the risk of getting bumped off the board and bumped out of the educational agenda.

Although the op-ed is clearly a purely oppositional piece (once you track down the author, her organization, and the funding for the organization, it’s clear that this is simply an ideological position and not someone who is thinking deeply about what children need to learn), the author has also offered a valuable gift to strengthen competency education. Although her intent was not to be a critical friend, she has done so by outlining a number of highly problematic implementation issues (some of these have been included in the upcoming CompetencyWorks series CBE Problems of Practice).

Thus, in one op-ed she exposes two major vulnerabilities of our field: 1) under-prepared to address critiques of competency education whether they are from parents of students with high GPAs (notice I do not call them high achieving, as the GPA tells us little about what students know and can do), ideologically-driven opposition, or ill-informed advocates that unintentionally promote misconceptions; and 2) poor implementation that doesn’t help students learn and weakens the entire movement.

We simply aren’t thinking ahead enough steps in the future. It’s not that as individual schools, organizations, and a field we aren’t working hard enough – everyone is charging ahead at warp speed. We just aren’t working in ways that consider other people’s moves and the implications of our own. We need to look at the whole board, the possible moves, and what we need to do to keep our pieces on the board and moving forward.

What Would It Take for Us to Get Ahead of the Curve?

Switching metaphors from chess to flying, what would it take for us to get ahead of the curve so we have more freedom to maneuver, more room for schools and districts to innovate? I’ve been reflecting on this question for more than a month. In returning to the Charting the Course recommendations in the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education’s Quality and Equity by Design for guidance, I realized that we had focused activities around improving the understanding of competency education and building capacity to support districts and schools to understand high quality implementation. However, there was little about how to deal with critiques, complaints, opposition, foot-dragging, or poor implementation.

So what could we do?

Communication: All communication is local and needs to be considered in the context of the community. It rarely helps for national organizations to insert themselves into local debate. However, given that we are trying to help communities understand and embrace a new set of assumptions, beliefs, and values, we could all benefit from building our communication skills. We could all benefit from becoming better paradigm shifters. My understanding is that part of what is needed to reframe is to learn how to construct questions that help people reflect so that they too begin to demand change.

Another tool we need is to be prepared for specific questions and concerns from parents based on their caring for their children and their (perceived) status in the community. In other words, we should be worried for their well-being of their children as well as prepared for the parents who may not see it in their best interest to have all students achieving at higher levels. Thus, message testing with focus groups could be very helpful. Agreements across organizations to use more common messages that reduce “noise” and build confidence in the direction of next generation education systems might be helpful.

Problems of Implementation: Honestly, I’m not sure how to tackle this. Hopefully, the upcoming book Quality Principles of Competency-Based Education will prove helpful. However, the principles need to be turned into self-assessment tools to actually be useful. The underlying issue is that we need feedback to learn. Otherwise we do our best and assume it is correct. Thus, structurally, we need to form strong networks with educators visiting each other’s schools and raise lots of questions and give lots of constructive criticism. Yes, we need to become more critical. As a field, we need to build a “critiquing” capacity.

Networks might be regional or they might be affiliated with an intermediary organization. We need to move ourselves quickly to a position that every district or school is in a network through which they are able to get ongoing feedback on their culture, pedagogy, and structure to support personalized, competency-based education. We could wait until a funder thinks this is important. However, I think we would be much better off if we became self-organizing.

I’m guessing that we also need to start to provide more formal feedback. It’s one thing to go to meetings for discussion or have visitors who will reflect with you. However, it is another thing altogether to have two to three people with a diverse set of expertise formally visit, organize the feedback, prepare discussion questions so there is a rich conversation, and formally share the feedback with leadership (school board and district) so that other changes can be made to further support schools.

Are we ready to do this? Almost. If we worked across organizations, tapping into the range of expertise, I think we could probably develop a series of easily modified self-assessment tools that could be used within six to nine months. Could states or regional networks begin to use assessment tools to build out resources on promising practices or credential those districts and schools using effective practices? I remain worried that it may be too early to do this, as we don’t have research on what makes effective practices. But to wait also bears enormous risk.

Next Stage of System Building: Creating high quality competency-based schools is somewhat of an uphill battle because we don’t have the structures to support them. Too many of our systems reinforce the traditional system. However, when we try to imagine what a high quality competency-based statewide system might look like, it can be hard to define. Our greatest vulnerability is the failure of our imagination to think beyond what is already in place.

There are two things we can do. First, we can spend more time deconstructing the current system in much greater detail. What are the regulations, policies, and operational procedures? (Obviously, this has to be done state by state given variation in local context.) What purpose did they serve when introduced, and is that purpose still important? How have they changed over time and why? Might there be other ways to meet that purpose that are more aligned with the values, beliefs, and assumptions of personalized, competency education?

To do so we need to bring together four types of expertise:

  • people who know the parts of the state/local system (teacher prep, accreditation, state policy, etc.) in great detail;
  • people who know personalized, competency education in great detail and how the system is impacting opportunities for innovation; and,
  • people with “facile” minds who can engage others in questioning the underlying assumptions, looking at things from other perspectives, and opening the door to imagining a new system.

Second, we can turn to other countries to help us take a step back, deconstruct, and think beyond what we do. This isn’t turning to international education because there are countries that are better than the United States. It is turning to international education because different histories, different cultures, and different catalytic experiences have opened up different avenues of system building. Not all of the systemic structures will be aligned with the science of learning. Not all will be able to be easily transferred to the United States. However, in simply understanding alternatives, we can begin to imagine and create what we need to move forward.

Next Stage of Field Building: This is where it gets tricky. We have well over thirty national and regional organizations now operating within the field to advance competency education. In general, the leaders know each other and there are multiple clusters of collaborative relationships. However, there is no structure and no leading organization that can draw everyone together to strengthen the analysis of the “board” (back to the chess metaphor) upon which we are all playing or to build more strategic, longer-term plans.

One of the consequences of the so-called “strategic philanthropy” has been that foundations have taken over much of the strategic leadership in fields. Instead of providing general support that allows leading organizations the flexibility to think ahead as a field, they have turned to funding initiatives that add value but not necessarily strategic value. We could wait for a funder collective to build a long-term field-building strategy for personalized, competency-based education. But it is possible that day will never come. Thus, the field organizations are likely going to need to self-organize if we are going to become stronger. I think the next iNACOL or SxSWEDU meetings might be good places to start these conversations about how to build a field that is “fit for purpose” for what it will take to sustain the advancement of competency education.

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I’ll wrap up here. I’m still talking to people and thinking about this question. I’m sure we could learn a lot by hearing about the experiences of other fields in other sectors as they moved into new stages in the development of their industry. Certainly we could learn a lot from the health care industry.

In the meantime, we would love to hear your thoughts about how we might get ahead of the curve or what you are doing in your own community to address any of these issues. Or if, in fact, there are other issues that should be added to this list of what needs to be addressed for us to get ahead of the curve.