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Aurora Institute

Growing CBE in Iowa

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Kari Webb

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education

In Iowa, we know how to grow things.  Plant the seeds, add a little sunshine and pretty soon, you can feed the world.  We grow a lot of corn, a lot of cows, and, lately, we are growing Competency Based Education (CBE) as well.

I have been a part of planting a few CBE seeds.  The ground for growth is fertile in our little school district.  In 2010, our community supported a 1:1 technology initiative, voting to put a MacBook Laptop in the backpack of every kid in town, grades five thru twelve.  That decision was like opening a sci-fi portal to the planet.  Suddenly, students in rural Northwest Iowa can interface with the highest quality educational resources in the world, from anyplace of their choosing and at any time.

Spirit Lake is not alone in Iowa.  One-to-One initiatives have sprouted across the state, growing from just a handful of districts in 2009 to well over one hundred in 2012.  As 1:1 technology sweeps across fields of green in Iowa, Competency Based Education (CBE) is spreading in its wake.  Mandi Bozarth noted in her recent post that groundbreaking CBE work in Iowa is co-mingling with other education reform initiatives like Project Based Learning (PBL), online coursework and blended teaching and learning strategies.  These are good seeds to plant together, actually, since CBE emphasizes the transfer of knowledge, and PBL is a methodology that requires the higher order work of creation, synthesis and evaluation.  In our district, we are writing competency statements that facilitate a progression of learning to climb the new Bloom’s Taxonomy hierarchy.  Mix in 1:1 technology and you will have planted a robust new hybrid with a 21st Century twist, incorporating digital learning and personalized pathways of study.

Educators in Iowa have a green light for CBE innovation, thanks to the hard work of folks like Sandra Dop at the IA Department of Education.  The DOE guidelines for PK-12 CBE will be a roadmap for frontline innovators in the state.  Competency Based Education recently gained a huge legislative victory in SF2284.  In short, Iowa school districts will no longer need to apply for a Waiver from Carnegie Unit in order to explore Competency Based Education pathways.

With the ground tilled and the seeds planted, small-town Iowa educators like me can get into the field!  Last week, Spirit Lake Community School District presented our plans for a 9th grade CBE project that we call The Core Academy to the IA State Board of Education.  Jason Glass, Iowa’s Director of Education, supports CBE work at the district level–and there is little doubt that districts making the leap from policy to practice need plenty of support!  There are some significant rocks in the CBE field that could de-rail an unsuspecting tractor or uproot a carelessly planted seed.

Still, Iowa educators are embracing the growing CBE opportunities.  Follow the Twitter hashtag conversation at #IACompEd, to see an evolving understanding of both the definition and practice of CBE in Iowa.  Groups of teachers and administrators are convening to begin writing competencies aligned to the Iowa Core.  In Spirit Lake, the “ink” on our 2012-2013 district goal is still not dry, but it will look something like this: The district will investigate and implement Competency Based Education pathways to increase personalized learning opportunities for students in grades K-12

The corn in Iowa will be “knee high by the fourth of July”—but how tall will our CBE work be by mid-summer?  We need to write competency statements in the Core disciplines, plan for the data-management that will accompany a transition to self-paced learning, communicate with stakeholders, figure out professional development strategies and put some solid foundational expectations for student accountability in place.  That is a lot of work to do while at the same time trying to steer clear of stepping in the muddy waters of GPA concerns, transcript questions, re-assessment options and class rank debates.

Still, I look outside my window at a freshly planted cornfield, and I know that Iowans are up for the hard work of CBE implementation—and the sooner the better as far as many are concerned.  Good things are growing in Iowa, in the fields and in the classrooms.

  __________About the Author__________

Kari Webb has served the students at Spirit Lake High School since 1998, teaching chemistry and AP chemistry.  She has an MA in Inorganic Chemistry from University of South Dakota, and is continuing her graduate work in Education Policy and Leadership at the University of Iowa.  She is now coordinating academic innovation with 1:1 technology integration in the district’s P-K thru 12th grade classrooms.   Webb serves on the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council with the Technology Enhanced Instruction Committee.  Webb brings a teacher’s perspective to systemic change, recognizing that genuine education reform happens one classroom, one teacher, and one student at a time.