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Aurora Institute

The Core Business of Schooling: Competency (Part 1)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Nicholas C. Donohue

Issue(s): State Policy, Base Learning on Mastery Not Seat Time

These are very exciting and interesting times for the field of education in general and those who are exploring competency as a core component of more effective approaches to education.  Notice I did not call it a “new” approach.

On the one hand, competency has been around as a concept for as long as human beings have been around.  Our own “competence” in terms of managing and manipulating the world around us is one reason we are a dominant species.  (Give thanks to meteors and the extinction of dinosaurs as another.)  Some would say we are approaching “incompetence” in terms of our survival skills on account of how we manage conflict, over use of natural resources and how we produce mind numbingly bad television shows.  However, we are pretty good at many things and our place in the world is evidence of this.

There are numerous real world examples of our intense interest in and commitment to competency.  Driver’s licenses, Scouting’s Merit Badges, achievement in sports, writing for publication, and so on.  These all share the obvious common ground of being about performance – measureable, meaningful and, in many cases, measured by varied methods of knowing success.

On the other hand, excellence in none of the above is measured by seat time.  Attending a Scout troop meeting might get you an attendance badge, but while we like to say 99% of some things is “showing up,” there are few employers who are so easily satisfied today.  While wealth and heritage still matter, in today’s world, in addition to showing up, most of us have to show what you can do to demonstrate our added value.

One should be suspicious when a basic concept attains the status of needing a special label.  Somewhat on account of our inherent interests, one would think that competency-based approaches in education would be a no brainer.  We are outcome and supposedly competency-crazed.  However, it is puzzling that every so often competency or some relative of it knocks on the door of education, hangs around for a while and then we bid farewell, wondering why the relationship never worked out.

A competency is an outcome, but a competency-based system has a few important and interconnected parts including the desired outcomes, ways of measuring achievement and appropriate opportunities to achieve the desired outcome.  In public education we have had standards that define success for some time.  The Common Core is the latest rendition of basic academic aspirations.  And whatever you think about these kinds of inventions, this set of educational objectives is a driving force – maybe the dominant driving force – in education today.

But standards are just one aspect of a competency-driven system of education or any other venture.  Standards need assessments or they are just goals, and in some systems, including education, many believe that assessments need consequences to give the standards the force for change.

In education, the outcomes we seek already have related assessments of performance.  We call these “tests.”  And, as mixed in quality as these measurement processes currently are, significant time, money and intelligence are being applied right now by two strong and competing assessment consortia trying to get the more traditional academic measurement skills right.

In education, accountability is assessment’s fraternal twin – rooted in the same measures, presuming judgment and doling out consequences.  Today, teachers’ jobs, students’ futures, administrator job performance, even the survival of particular schools and districts are rooted in how well they contribute either absolutely or soon in terms of relative progress toward a wide range of well articulated competencies.

By this description, we are in some ways already deeply involved in a competency driven approach to schooling. But if competence is the core business of schooling then why does it seem like a new idea every time it emerges as a topic of reform, debate and consideration?

To read more, go to Part II

Nicholas C. Donohue is President and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Previously, Nick was Commissioner of Education in New Hampshire. He holds a M.Ed. from Harvard University School of Education and a B.A. from Wesleyan University. Follow him on Twitter at @NickDonohueNMEF.