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Aurora Institute

Shaking Up the Classroom — Wall Street Journal Covers Competency Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

LUSD website
LUSD website

In case you missed it, the Wall Street Journal had a story yesterday on competency education. In Shaking Up the Classroom – Some Schools Scrap Age-Based Grade Levels, Focusing on Mastery of Material, Stephanie Banchero reports on her visit to Lindsay Unified School District.  I talked with Stephanie at one point because she couldn’t find any critics of competency education — you can see in the article the best she could find is that there is a strong emphasis on those deeper learning skills and fears that traditionally underserved students may not benefit.  I do think we need to know our critics and listen to them so that they can help us spot implementation issues quickly.

The article is below — and if you want to know more about Lindsay, check out the blog posting on my site visit.

Shaking Up the Classroom
Some Schools Scrap Age-Based Grade Levels, Focusing on Mastery of Material


March 10, 2014

LINDSAY, Calif.—There are no seventh-graders in the Lindsay Unified School District.

Instead, in the “Content Level 7” room at Washington Elementary, 10 students, ages 11 to 14, gather around teacher Nelly Lopez for help in writing essays. Eight sit at computers, plowing through a lesson on sentence structure, while a dozen advanced students work on assignments in pairs.

The 4,100-pupil district at the base of the Sierra Nevada range is part of an experiment shaking up classrooms across the country. Called competency-based learning, it is based on the idea that students learn at their own pace and should earn credits and advance after they master the material—not just because they have spent a year in a certain class.

Salvador Centeno said he used to get bored at school and would secretly read Harry Potter novels during math. The 12-year-old, who would be in seventh grade in a traditional school, pulled out his school-issued laptop and opened a spreadsheet showing he is doing ninth-grade math. “Now, I can’t slack off,” he said with a smile.

U.S. K-12 education has been undergoing a revolution as states try new ways to boost graduation rates and better prepare students for college or work. Louisiana gives credit for classes offered by local businesses. Rhode Island allows students to earn “digital badges” outside the classroom for creating business plans. Students in Florida and Oregon take massively open online courses, or MOOCs, for high-school credit.

Competency-based learning goes further, jettisoning the century-old idea that students move ahead based on age and classroom time. In the past few years, Iowa, Connecticut, Maine and Utah changed laws to let districts define what a credit means, bringing the number to 29 states.

The Obama administration gave grants to districts to experiment with the model; the Lindsay district here received $10 million from the administration’s Race to the Top funding.

In Lindsay, which sits among lush citrus orchards, many students come from poor families who pick or sort fruit. About 95% of the pupils are Latino, and 100% qualify for free lunch.

Lindsay’s move is showing some success. The district has seen its pass rates on state exams rise since competency-based teaching began in 2009. In reading, 34% of students passed the exams last year, up from 25% in 2009. Pass rates for math rose to 32% from 28%, while those for science jumped to 41% from 27%.

The district still scores below California averages on all the exams, but is improving faster than the statewide average on most of them. Lindsay’s score in the state Academic Performance Index, based on tests, jumped to 691 last year from 644 in 2009. The 47-point gain compares with an average 35-point rise statewide.

Meanwhile, suspension rates dropped by 41% and high-school students claiming gang membership fell by half to about 4%, district officials said.

But competency-based systems have critics. Ann Marie Banfield of the conservative group Cornerstone Action said she has taken calls from New Hampshire parents and teachers who complain the system, which the state mandated in 2005, is too focused on work skills, such as collaboration, and not enough on academic excellence. Others worry the setup focuses too heavily on testing and could allow some students who need prodding to move too sluggishly.

“There is appeal to moving students through the curriculum as they are ready,” said Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy at Education Trust, an advocacy group that focuses on closing the achievement gap. “But the risky downside is that it could translate into lower expectations in terms of how fast low-income and minority students are expected to progress.”

The Lindsay district’s leaders—unhappy with academic performance—seized on the idea that students should prove they know course material. The district replaced the old curriculum that laid out low-level academic goals with one that details more complex achievement targets. Officials rewrote lesson plans, devised a new grading scale and retrained teachers to tailor lessons for students at various levels.

On a recent day in Dora Villalobos’s kindergarten classroom, rambunctious youngsters plowed through flashcards—with a 5-year-old as the leader—working on number recognition. Nearby, more advanced students did addition problems on tablet computers, while Ms. Villalobos glided through the room offering individual help.

Teachers say the transition was tough and, district leaders say, some educators left. “This was not a tweak of the old system,” said Superintendent Tom Rooney. “We dismantled the parts of the old system that didn’t work and replaced them with an entirely new system.”

Now, teachers must track every student during biweekly data sessions and move them in and out of groups or classrooms based on progress. Students must pass exams to prove they have met learning targets. Students who fail the tests repeatedly aren’t moved ahead under “social promotion” but must master the material.

Amalia Lopez, who heads the English Department at Lindsay High School, said she comes to every class with five lesson plans—each for a different level of student aptitude. “I sleep very little and drink a lot of coffee,” she said.

Write to Stephanie Banchero at [email protected]