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Aurora Institute

Organizational Position Matters

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): State Policy, Redefine Student Success

DeskIs competency-based education just for high schools or is it what you want for your entire K-12 system?

States and districts need to think about this question early on – what is the end goal? It is easy for state policymakers and districts to interpret that the policy for proficiency-based diplomas only applies to high schools. New Hampshire’s first step was to change time-based credits in secondary schools to competency-based followed by regulatory changes for the entire education system, from kindergarten through graduation.

Districts might respond by placing the leadership for the conversion to competency-based education with someone overseeing high schools, such as an office of post-secondary readiness. If states have the leadership placed in a department that oversees high schools, it sends a clear message that it competency education is a high school reform.

The problem with doing this is two-fold:

  1. If competency education is only in high schools, then you will continue to have a flow of students entering high school while missing pre-requisite skills because elementary schools were passing students on without their reaching proficiency. Furthermore, with the tick-tick-tick of the four-year high school countdown, students will have to learn the new expectations, rituals, and routines of competency-based education, do double-time in trying to fill any missing skills, make the transition from teen to young adulthood, figure out what they want to do with their lives or at least where they want to go to college, and a number of other big benchmarks that are part of adolescence.
  2. Districts may not consider that competency education applies to elementary schools. Later, when the state makes it clear that it in fact does, the district has to make a mid-course correction to think about a systemic approach to competency education rather than simply a school-based approach.

In some ways this latter case can be helpful, as districts have gotten their feet wet by thinking about competency education as only applying to high school. However, there is a lost opportunity, as there is early evidence that suggests that we can see real gains in elementary schools when we meet students where they are. (Windsor Locks and Adams 50 both saw enough gains at the elementary level to lift schools out of school improvement status. See Patrice Glancey’s article looking at what happens when we meet kids where they are.)

Thus, states and districts should think ahead. Even if your first step is about high schools, think about the long-term plan and how to position your leadership to provide systemic strategies.

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