Summer Reading for Newbies: What is Competency Education?
When Susan Patrick and I started working together in 2009, there were two things written about competency education. There was lots about the classroom practices of mastery-based learning, but only Delivering on the Promise and A New Model of Student Assessment for the 21st Century provided insights into what a competency-based structure rather than a time-based system looked like. They are both still worth reading: Delivering on the Promise captures the transformation that occurred at Chugach School District, and I consider the description of the failings of the traditional system in A New Model of Student Assessment for the 21st Century to be one of the best out there.
Six years later, reports and blogs abound. So where should someone trying to understand competency education focus their attention? This list would be better written by a master-novice (someone who has just learned about competency education), as they would be able to tell you what was most helpful to them (in fact…we would love it if you told us what resources have been most helpful to you so that we are more confident in our recommendations). However, I will do my best to provide a reading list.
Please note: We are still building knowledge and gathering it together so we can learn from each other. I’ve marked gaps in the field of knowledge in italics.
- Great Schools Partnership has developed a great set of resources called Proficiency-Based Learning Simplified. The Ten Principles of Proficiency-Based Learning is an excellent resource. Don’t just skim it. Find a few colleagues and talk together about it.
- CompetencyWorks developed introductory materials – a general description, one for state leaders, and one for federal leaders. These are helpful, but honestly we really need a fun, animated video to really bring to life what competency education means.
As I make this list, it’s really clear to me that as a field we are still missing an easy-to-read primer on competency education that helps explain how the pieces of competency fit together to create a cohesive system.
Going a Bit Deeper
Once you’ve read what competency education is, questions will likely abound. The following papers provide more depth.
- The Past and the Promise: Today’s Competency-Based Education Movement: This is the first paper in Students at the Center’s new Competency Education Research Series published by Jobs for the Future. I think the section on the underlying research base is a must read. However, it doesn’t include the research on systems-building that I think is also underlying competency education – I’d turn to the work by Peter Senghe, total quality management, and continuous improvement if you want to go deeper.
- Profiles of Models: There are two papers that profile a number of different models – Making Mastery Work and Springpoint’s new paper, Inside Mastery Based High Schools: Profiles and Conversations. The problem is that both highlight only high schools….This is another gap in knowledge that needs to be filled. We really need something that looks at whole districts as well as elementary and middle schools.
- Equity in Competency Education: Realizing the Potential, Overcoming the Obstacles: This is JFF’s second paper and is a good start on identifying issues related to equity. How we think about equity changes as more data becomes available on depth of learning, pace, and progress. And we still need to think more sharply about quality implementation so we understand exactly how competency education needs to be implemented to ensure traditionally underserved students can soar.
How to Implement
- We are just at the beginning of building up this base of knowledge. The most comprehensive for districts converting to competency education is Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.
- Great Schools Partnership’s Proficiency-Based Learning Simplified also has insights and guidance on implementation issues.
- The Learning Edge: Supporting Student Success in a Competency-Based Learning Environment is an important report, as some districts fail to construct adequate systems of support in their first years.
- Progress and Proficiency: Redesigning Grading for Competency Education is an overview of the complexity and failings of the traditional system with options for creating an aligned system that tracks learning. Although a report isn’t the best mechanism, it would be helpful for the field to be able to see four to five grading systems (including the information systems), the reasoning behind them, and dynamics that needed to be managed.
- The issue of how to design the Instruction and Assessment structure is becoming a topic of a lot of interest. We have work to do to think deeply about how we structure competencies and standards, the granularity, and how they are used. We are creating a new language of learning but we need deeper understanding to do so. Although this needs to be updated, The Art and Science of Designing Competencies is a good starting point to understand the issue.
Making Sense of and Integrating Personalization, Competency Education, and Blended Learning
- The Shift from Cohorts to Competency, published by Digital Now, can help us to think what this will all look like in 2025. Again, this is best read with a colleague so you can push yourselves to think beyond what we know of schools and schooling.
- Two papers have been written to directly address how these concepts relate to each other: Mean What You Say, published by iNACOl, and Maximizing Blended Learning and Competency Education.
- Blending toward competency: Early patterns of blended learning and competency-based education in New Hampshire by Christensen Institute is a research-based report (I think our only report like this at this time) on how schools are integrating blended into competency-based structures.
State Strategies and Policy
- Necessary for Success: Building Mastery of World-Class Skills: A State Policymakers Guide to Competency Education is a summary of the approaches that districts have used. However, this paper needs to be updated, as there has been a lot of specific policy advancements and major lessons learned in the past two years that aren’t captured here. (Stay tuned for Achieve’s paper on state efforts towards Competency-Based Pathways for more information.)
- There are several resources to help you understand New Hampshire’s journey. Strengthening High School Teaching and Learning in New Hampshire’s Competency-Based System, from Alliance for Excellent Education is a bit out of date now. Christensen Institute’s From Policy to Practice and New Hampshire’s Story of Transformation are both helpful. However, we don’t have anything that will capture their efforts to build a system of assessments that include performance-based assessments and re-design the accountability system.
- A K-12 Federal Policy Framework for Competency Education: Building Capacity for Systems Change by iNACOL and KnowledgeWorks highlights a number of major policy issues shaped by federal policy. Remember that although it would be helpful to have a more aligned federal policy, we know that states and districts can move forward without it.
If you are totally new to cbe in higher education, start with Cracking the Credit Hour by New America Foundation. We’ve also put together a reading list.
Again, please let us know what you have found to be particularly helpful.