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Aurora Institute

In Real Life: How Competency-Based Systems Wrestle With Education’s Stickiest, Most Human Questions

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Jenny Poon

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

This is the introductory article to an eight-part series based on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.”

“Why should we educate? What are the benefits that individuals legitimately should expect from education? What are the benefits that society should expect from an educated citizenry…? How can we achieve them?”

Over 30 years ago, Patricia Albjerg Graham penned an article that questions the purpose of schooling and challenges readers to consider how well the design of American public education fits its purpose.  Still today, people working both within and outside the education system question its design, seeking ways to more effectively prepare students for college and career (or whatever is their desired purpose for public education).

Why would people question the design of the education system? For some, it is because the landscape of the American workforce is changing, requiring the education system to prepare students with different skills and abilities than before. Others are propelled by the fact that, despite a rise in public high school graduation rates, too many new college-goers are still underprepared for the next phase and find themselves in remedial courses. In fact, too many find themselves without good postsecondary options at all.

For me personally and for many colleagues who are educators today, we seek change because we know that educators’ daily heroic efforts to reach every child fall short without substantial support from broader systems that configure time, space, and resources in ways that enable educators to know every child and to partner with them and their communities to advance their learning.

If we can admit that change is necessary, the next question is: how? In recent years, a new system design called competency-based education (CBE, also referred to as proficiency-based or mastery-based education) has been gaining prominence.  CBE systems seek to make the goals of education more transparent by clearly defining learning outcomes (“competencies”) that have relevance to modern society and the workplace. They heighten the ability of students, teachers, and parents to track students’ progress toward these outcomes; and they rearrange traditional structures of school schedules, classrooms, and educator assignments to enable more timely, differentiated support for individual students based on their unique learning strengths and needs.

Even when designed with the best of intentions, however, CBE systems – like any system – must address potential unintended consequences inherent in their designs. Often, unintended consequences stem from how systems address fundamental, philosophical questions at the center of education system design.

This blog series walks through some of the “sticky issues,” highlighting voices of CBE practitioners across the country to learn how their systems reckon with these questions — not in theory, but in real life. Explore the issues and interviews below:

  • Who gets to decide what student outcomes matter? CBE systems expect all students to master essential competencies as a way to ensure that every student graduates ready for the next phase. But it is this insistence on mastery that has tremendous implications for how the competencies themselves are defined, and in particular, for the process through which the competencies are decided. Who gets to say what knowledge and skills are so important that every single kid must master them? Whose opinions are consulted? Superintendent Dianne Kelly shares how Revere Public Schools in Massachusetts is engaging the whole community in setting a new vision for what all Revere graduates should know and be able to do.
  • How can we design outcomes aimed for equity? For district and school leaders aiming to promote equity in their systems, the question of how competencies are defined (and who gets to decide) is only heightened. How inclusive and representative are vision-setting and decision-making processes? How can leaders garner support from various stakeholders and help reconcile differing perspectives on what equity means or how to achieve it? Cynthia Green, Executive Director of Secondary Programs and Pathways for Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin; and Karyn Stocks Glover, Principal of Capital High in Madison, share how MMSD and Capital High used community-driven and culturally-responsive processes to define desired outcomes for their graduates.
  • How can CBE systems ensure that learning is deep, ongoing, and integrated? CBE systems strive to increase transparency so that students have a clear roadmap of the knowledge and skills they are expected to master. At the same time, some question whether such transparency has a downside of reducing learning to a shallow check-list of tasks that students race through to complete. How do competency-based systems balance the desire for transparency with the need for depth? Esther Soliman, the Administrator for Linked Learning, CTE, and Work Experience for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in California, shares how the Linked Learning pathways in LAUSD use project-based learning and student exhibitions to ensure that student learning is deep, ongoing, and integrated – not a “check the box” exercise. In addition, Elizabeth Cardine, Lead Teacher and Advisor at MC2 Schools in New Hampshire, shares how MC2 embeds its competency-based model in a culture of revision to ensure that student learning is deep and ongoing; and how it supports learners with a diversity of needs to reach mastery.
  • How can we help every student reach a level of mastery? In CBE systems, learners are “met where they are” and are supported to reach mastery at their own pace. Are there limits to how quickly or slowly students are allowed to move through the system? And what supports are needed to ensure that every student succeeds? Mallory Haar, an English as a New Language Teacher at Casco Bay High School in Maine, shares how transparent expectations and a culture of revision to support learners with a diversity of needs, strengths, and prior knowledge to reach proficiency at paces appropriate to them. In addition, Alison Kearney, Assistant Principal at Noble High School in Maine, shares how her school couples a proficiency-based grading system with a robust set of student supports to ensure that all students reach proficiency.
  • How do we know if competency-based education is working? If CBE systems are to meet their ambitious goal of having every child master every competency essential for success in college and career, they must have ways to determine how well their systems’ practices and structures are serving this goal. Across the interviews for this series, three related pieces of advice emerged to guide efforts at continuous improvement, including suggestions for collecting and analyzing multiple types of data throughout the year; ensuring reliability and consistency across the system; and prioritizing educator collaboration.
  • How can we support goal-setting and student agency, especially in the early years? This guest post by Jillian Kuhlmann of KnowledgeWorks shares how Batesburg-Leesville Primary School in Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina keep personalized data notebooks to cultivate an awareness of learning that is critical for all students – especially those who struggle.

Jennifer Poon’s mission is to effect social justice by modernizing the public education system to be more responsive to the needs of all learners, especially those most historically under-served. Currently, she is consulting on projects of interest while serving as a Fellow with the Center for Innovation in Education. Previously, Jennifer directed the Innovation Lab Network at the Council of Chief State School Officers. Prior to that, she taught at King/Drew High School in Compton, CA. Tweet to her @JDPoon.