This is the tenth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.
The early lesson from New England is that the scaling strategies for competency-based education require a combination of schools and districts that have the courageous leadership to convert to competency education and state leadership willing to commit to goal-oriented policies supported by long-term capacity-building strategies. Again, over time and as more states move forward, we are likely to learn about where there might be additional issues that need to be addressed. In particular, districts and states need to consider equity, quality, and sustainability.
Even though equity resides at the very heart of competency-based education, it still requires an unrelenting commitment to challenge institutional patterns, individual bias that creates lower expectations, and strong management practices that can lead to much greater responsiveness. The focus on equity should be found in the accountability designs within school, district, and state systems and processes as well as the schoolwide instructional philosophies and strategies.
Although states are trying to increase responsiveness through embedding expectations that schools and educators respond to student needs, conversations with educators across New England suggest that courageous leadership is still needed. Under the pressure of the end-of-year accountability exams, too many schools and educators, even in the most developed competency-based districts, are still providing grade-level curriculum to students even if they have already learned the content or are lacking the prerequisite skills. In addition to leadership, we will need to engage a broad range of expertise, both practitioner and leadership, to identify the best ways to help students fill skill gaps without falling back into the trap of tracking.
The field is currently challenged by not having enough research and evaluation on the quality indicators for competency-based districts and schools to determine the elements that will lead to a high-quality model or effective implementation. This task is further complicated by what might be called waves of innovation that take place once districts become competency-based: As educators and schools become more intentional about what they want students to know and be able to do, there are efforts to build assessment literacy; build the capacity for performance assessments to support the development of higher order skills; develop stronger instructional strategies based on learning progressions; introduce practices that support student agency, voice, and choice; integrate more personalized learning practices; and introduce digital tools and online learning. Thus, schools and districts are taking different paths with different sequencing as they build the full range of capacities needed to operate a high-quality competency-based system.
Another consideration is whether districts are converting to competency-based education because they see it as meaningful for students or it is done solely under the weight of compliance. In some districts, there has been extraordinary commitment of the community and school board to developing high-quality competency-based schools. However, we do not know what the impact will be of districts converting because of state policy rather than because they see real value in it. Without understanding the major levers that will produce high-quality, equity-boosting achievement, districts must rely on benchmarking—learning about the most effective processes that their colleagues are using across the region.
Thus, at this point, states must depend primarily on their strategies to deliver supports to engage districts, principals, and educators in conversations about quality. Vermont’s strategy for peer-led quality review of schools may be the most promising until greater research is in place.
As we have seen with other efforts to create innovation space, early adopters take advantage of the opportunity, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into a groundswell of change. For example, once Connecticut’s enabling policy to allow for mastery-based credits was in place, at least three districts sought to redesign the K-12 system and another fifteen or more were solely focusing on high schools. Time will tell if Connecticut’s strategy will lead to more districts embracing mastery-based learning or if there will need to be additional policy or support.
The momentum in New England for creating a personalized, competency-based system continues to grow in the New England states. Most of the strategies used in New England have required a strong consensus that the traditional system is obsolete; to date, that commitment has remained vital even through major leadership changes.
There are some signs of pockets of opposition. Ironically, those who have raised their voices against competency education are taking the word of private vendors, who claim that competency education is the same as online learning. To date, they appear not to understand that competency education, rooted in the growth mindset, deeply values teachers and teaching and can help strengthen the knowledge and skills of teachers to respond more effectively to the needs of their students.
One of the crystal clear lessons learned from districts that have transformed their systems is that community engagement is not something you do once or twice. It becomes an ongoing process in which the districts open up dialogues, listen to feedback to inform their efforts, and, when possible, co-create strategies that meet the needs of communities, parents, students, and teachers. Community engagement is equally important as a mechanism to create the respect and trust needed for empowering school cultures and continuous improvement as a sustainability strategy.
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