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Aurora Institute

Getting Started and Scaling Competency-Based Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Andrea Stewart

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

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Andrea Stewart

Iowa is a state no longer content with the status quo perpetuated by an antiquated educational system. Recent legislation and the work of an appointed state task force comprised of diverse stakeholders have unlocked the potential in proficiency-based learning for Iowa’s students. Inspired by the opportunity to change the nature of learning, ten school districts have joined the Iowa Department of Education and representatives from higher education and Area Education Agencies (AEAs) to engage in collaborative learning, to implement competency-based education (CBE) pathways in their districts, and to develop a state framework for CBE implementation.

As we build capacity in understanding CBE in our district and throughout the state, I am often approached with questions about how to get started or how to scale and sustain the work. I usually respond by asking how many days or hours the person has to engage in that conversation. We laugh, but nothing is further from the truth. The atomistic behaviorism that compels Westernized thinking is a limit to understanding CBE as a transformative systems change. Russ Ackoff believed that if we optimize the performance of parts of a system, we suboptimize the system as a whole. Peter Senge agrees that the leverage is in optimizing the interdependencies of a system. With CBE, the limits to growth are microcosmic and macrocosmic, which make them particularly difficult to recognize, map, and mitigate. As such, it is necessary to both take a balcony view and to roll up our sleeves for work in the trenches as Iowa embraces competency-based pathways.

Question 1: What do people who are new to competency-based education need to know or do?

  1. Start with the “why”—a compelling reason for change—and move out from there to the “how” and the “what”. In Muscatine, we talked about the following: need to disrupt the antiquated system so that it can adapt to 21st century demands; understanding that date of manufacture should not determine a student’s path through her or his education experiences; belief that our students need to be adaptable, entrepreneurial, and resilient, which demands a system that supports those demands and that growth. Spend time on the vision and create a theory of action.
  2. Create a common language through an extensive literature review. This includes definitions of terminology related to CBE as well as defining what CBE is not—deconstructing how this work is not just new terms for what our system has tried before (outcomes-based education from the 70s/80s, for example). This philosophy and methodology are qualitatively different from past paradigms—this needs to be explicated.
  3. Map an overview of a well-articulated design process, from knowledge-building to visioning to communication to writing competencies to unwrapping/aligning standards to developing proficiency scales to differentiating instruction and assessment to assessing fidelity of implementation. Create and deliver ongoing professional development that integrates these parts in order to support the system as a whole.
  4. Build feedback loops to engage stakeholders in the design and communication processes early and often. It is important that students, parents, teachers, counselors/registrars, tech support personnel, administrators, board members, community members, and higher education officials are included in the design process and in the evaluation of implementation. Districts must also plan how to use the information gained from feedback for reflection and growth.
  5. Develop a mechanism by which teachers can be supported in managing effective use of time, place, method, and pace as ways to vary learning experiences for students. Educators need to know how to individualize the learning process so that CBE is driven by student agency rather than by the system’s agenda. If the Common Core is the floor—the base of what every student should know and be able to do—then how do we vary time, place, method, and pace so that the glass ceiling is removed and students can follow the fastest path to goals that matter to them?
  6. Assist teachers with full immersion in the Common Core and/or other national standards (such as NGSS or NCSS C3 Framework) in order to align curriculum, instruction, and assessment in the classroom.
  7. Support teachers in the necessary methodologies that will support anytime, anywhere learning. Teachers need training on the flipped classroom, blended learning, online learning platforms such as Edmodo or Moodle, differentiation, modularized direct instruction, social media, collaborative online resources such as the Google suite, among others. Schools as a whole and teachers individually (or as departments) might also explore job shadow experiences and internships as a method for students to demonstrate their proficiency with standards or to demonstrate proficiency in one or more competencies.
  8. Improve existing RtI frameworks. Engage teachers and administrators in the solutions: how can we best remediate and enrich through the use of real-time data for just-in-time interventions that will support learning in this environment? Teachers and administrators will be concerned with the logistics of CBE and how they can successfully take learning “off the clock”. Without robust RtI frameworks, much of the heavy lifting will be left to individual teachers rather than the collective strength of the system as a whole.

Question 2: What are the next steps for districts that have already engaged in the work of CBE? How do we help take what we are doing to scale?

  1. Advocate for adaptation of student information systems and gradebooks so that limited resources do not hold this transformation back. Most products currently on the market do not support standards-based grading or competency-based education from a philosophical or a pragmatic perspective. If districts continue to hit walls during their efforts to track and report learning or to flexibly schedule students’ educational experiences along with how those experiences are reflected on transcripts, they may turn away from this important work.
  2. Understand CBE from a systems perspective so that the interconnectedness and interdependency of the system (local, state, and national) can be mapped and managed. This work cannot be completed in a silo and necessitates the preemptive work of identifying potential unintended consequences along the way. Read deeply and widely about CBE in other states and about using systems thinking (Ackoff, Senge, Gharajedaghi, Wheatley). Understanding systems’ laws, disabilities, and archetypes will allow educators to militate against defensive routines and build learning organizations.
  3. Map policy evaluation so that districts and states can remove barriers to anytime, anywhere, any method, any pace learning. A plan for educating state legislators and education officials as well as how to include local boards and other governing bodies in the conversation will assist districts with the change process.
  4. Develop a framework for including community resources in CBE—how to tap into local, national, and global resources to take learning beyond the walls of the school. Districts will need support in marrying real-world learning experiences with competencies, standards, and evaluation by highly qualified teachers.
  5. Leverage other educational initiatives with the design and implementation of CBE. The Teacher Leadership and Compensation System, for example, can be a systems change that supports professional development, innovation in lesson design and delivery, community outsourcing, recruitment and retention of teachers, as well as aligned curriculum, instruction, assessment, and reporting of learning.

Question 3: What are the five most important “competencies” that someone working to transform their state, district, or school need to have?

  1. Understanding that learning is on a continuum and is not based on age or teacher-determined timeframes.
  2. Determination to battle the status quo, knowing that changing mindsets and deeply-ingrained mental models will be one of the most formidable challenges to successful implementation.
  3. A systems thinking/doing perspective.
  4. A voracious appetite for learning and for contributing to the conversation at a local, state, and national level. It is important to continue to read widely about competency-based education and the nature of change in our world so that advocacy will be effective and purposeful. It is also important for those interested in transformation to use their voices to educate others and to push our thinking by pointing out what might be around the corner. Be visionary.
  5. Resilience. Grit.

Andrea Stewart is the Competency-based Education Lead and Coordinator of Gifted Programming in Muscatine Community Schools. She held multiple leadership roles on Iowa’s Competency-Based Education Task Force, within the Iowa CBE Collaborative, and on the Iowa Department of Education CBE Design Team and Planning Team. Prior to that, she taught high school English.