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These Red Flags Signal Competency Education’s Three Biggest Misconceptions

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

This post was first published at EdSurge on June 13, 2017. It has been slightly revised from the original version. 

I’ve continued to go back to Tony Wan’s piece, Why There’s Little Consistency in Defining Competency-Based Education. I’m thrilled he wrote it, as I think it holds up a mirror to all of us working in the world of competency-based education about where we can do better. However, I think the title may be a bit misleading.

I actually find that there is a medium amount of consistency: It could certainly be better, but there is much more consistency about competency education than about other ideas that have been introduced into the world of education. (After the 21st Century Community Schools were created, for example, I was traumatized as a program officer at the Mott Foundation by the hours and hours of cross-talk about the similarities and differences between a community school, an after-school program, and a youth program in the community.)

I do agree wholeheartedly that there are a few places where misconceptions are getting in our way. We’ve discovered that the five-part working definition of competency education developed by 100 innovators six years ago hasn’t protected us from misunderstandings. People are quite comfortable picking the first of the five parts—students advance upon demonstrated mastery—and focusing on pace rather than helping every student successfully learn.

If you don’t understand that the traditional system of education is designed to rank and sort students, then it’s really hard to understand competency-based education. States, districts, and schools that are transitioning to competency education are redesigning the system to respond to each and every student so that they master the skills they need for higher level school work—and for their futures. Think about it as designing for success, rather than ranking and sorting.

Here are the three red flags that indicate to me a misunderstanding of the overarching goal and structure of competency education:

1. “Our school has flexible pacing. Students can go as fast or slow as they want.”

One, two, three red flags go up when I hear this.

Allowing students to keep working on things that they don’t quite understand or haven’t gained fluency in—rather than moving on to the next topic—is important. So is enabling students to advance above grade level. However, that’s not the reason that competency education is valuable.

The big difference is that in competency education, districts and schools are building internal accountability: Schools commit to providing instruction and support until the student masters skills and content. In the traditional system, schools don’t do much if students don’t learn what is required; most students are going to get promoted anyway.

The second red flag is the idea that teachers don’t have any role in helping students progress at a pace that is moving them toward graduation. I actually find the idea of self-pacing to be bordering on silly. Sure, some students are going to zip through the material. But there are plenty of students who are going to need help in thinking about timelines and progress benchmarks.

Students are also going to require opportunities to reflect with teachers or advisors on their pace of learning and what can be done if they aren’t making progress. They need opportunities for reflection as well as coaching in order to build on the lifelong learning skills they are going to need after graduation. These skills include understanding the power of a growth mindset, the habits of work and learning, and the ability to manage their emotions.

Remember: Advance upon mastery isn’t about pace, it’s about schools taking responsibility for making sure students are learning.

2. “Some of our students are faster learners and some are slower learners.”

I get very nervous when I hear students being labeled “faster” and “slower”; it seems that it’s just another way to sort them. Doesn’t faster always sound better than slower? However, the problem in this statement is much bigger than an issue of labeling or sorting. It implies an enormous misunderstanding.

This misconception pops up when teachers talk about the rate at which students are learning within a semester and over a set of grade level skills. The assumption is that everyone starts at point A and will end up at point B. Here’s what gets dropped out of that remark: Students are always at different places in their learning. Some students may already know the standards. Some may be a bit hazy about prerequisite skills but are strong conceptually. And some may have gaps or simply be learning at a different performance level altogether. So we need to get over the assumption that all students are at point A.

I get very nervous when I hear students being labeled “faster” and “slower”; it seems that it’s just another way to sort them.

Growth rates are also going to be different. For example, a student who has built his reading skills from second to fourth grade—even if he is still not at grade level—is growing at a rate of 3.0. A student who started at grade level or above, however—and completed all her assignments “quickly”—may have grown at a rate of 1 or less. Think about it: The so-called “slow student,” based only on grade level standards, may just be taking more time to cover more ground. His growth rate could actually be double or triple that of the fast student who is simply demonstrating something she learned last year.

Remember: Students are always at different places in their learning. The question is how are schools and teachers responding so that all students are building the skills they need for higher levels of studies?

3. “I implemented blended learning last year and my students are now able to advance upon mastery.”

In schools that have introduced blended learning – a mix of teacher-delivered instruction and technology-delivered instruction – it’s easy to jump to the idea that students are advancing through the software as mastery. The program is likely to be actually telling students that. When people suggest that educational software is synonymous with competency education, then I know they don’t get it. They don’t get competency education at all.

Here’s why it is not the same thing. Competency education is structural; the use of instructional technology is a mode of delivery. When we say the traditional system is reproducing inequity by ranking, sorting, and passing students with incomplete skills, it means we have to remove those structures that are problematic and replace them with something else.

From the best that we can tell, competency education requires changes across a school. It can’t be something done just in one classroom. The school needs to organize its schedules to provide flexible time for students who need more help. Teachers have to build a shared understanding of what it means to be proficient and align it vertically across the school to avoid the problems of low expectations, which may undermine the quality of education in several ways.

Those educators who are often dubbed the easy teachers may promote all of their students without the skills they need for the next level. Other teachers may organize learning around the lower rungs of Bloom’s taxonomy, only focusing on memorization and comprehension. When equity isn’t front and center, some students—possibly because of issues of race or class—may be advanced to the next grade level without fully mastering the necessary skills. Thus, it takes a school-wide commitment to make sure every student learns and demonstrates mastery of skills.

Teachers in competency-based schools are, of course, using computers. They may use a student information system that helps them track student progress, organize flexible groupings, and have a better understanding of growth across academic domains. They may use computers as productivity tools, to research and locate resources. They may create video lessons to introduce new concepts and skills. They may also have selected some educational software for students to use.

In most schools I’ve visited, educational software is considered an option with which students can practice and build fluency. However, teachers always maintain responsibility for assessing mastery. It is the teacher’s professional judgment of a student’s understanding that determines when students are ready to move on.

Finally, the idea of competency means that students are applying skills and knowledge to new situations. It means they are operating at the higher level of Bloom’s taxonomy. Students are going to need opportunities to use the skills they are learning, not receive 80 percent on another quiz on the computer to demonstrate mastery.

There is no doubt confusion will continue about competency education. I’m not as worried about the people who want to call whatever they are doing competency-based. I am worried about the educators in the districts and schools who are trying to implement it and don’t understand how the five parts of the working definition of competency education fit together.

At CompetencyWorks, we are trying to get in front of this challenge by opening the conversation about what it means to have a high-quality competency-based school. At the National Summit on K-12 Competency Education, we took the first cut at a quality framework; it can be found in the paper, In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System. There is still more to be done to create a document that can fully shed light on the shadowy misconceptions about competency education.

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