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Aurora Institute

Thinking about Design Elements and Quality Standards

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Modernize HEA, Issues in Practice, Evaluate Quality

designThis is the fourth article in our series on competency education in K12 and higher education institutes. Begin the series here.

It’s one thing to build consensus around a definition of competency-based education. The definition of competency education developed in higher education by C-BEN and the definition used by CompetencyWorks are comparable. Both have served as a helpful organizing tool around which to build the field and deepen our understanding of competency education. However, it’s an altogether different thing to agree to what high quality competency-based education looks like, not to mention the more difficult task of agreeing to what what low quality, the unacceptable kind, looks like.  

C-BEN has started down a path toward building agreement about quality. They started with ten design elements in the Shared Design Elements and Emerging Practices. They then narrowed this to eight in the Quality Standards for Competency-Based Educational Programs: transparency of student learning; intentionally designed and engaged student experiences; clear, measurable, meaningful and complete competencies; coherent, competency-driven program and curriculum design; credential-level assessment strategy with robust implementation; evidence-driven continuous improvement processes; collaborative engagement with external partners; and demonstrated institutional commitment to and capacity for CBE innovation.

They have created a structure of a design element, principle, and standards to dive deep into what quality means. Much of it applies directly to competency education in K12, although there are differences.

1) IHE tends to be programmatic and is likely to be thinking about meeting the needs of niche markets. Even in the colleges transforming their entire campuses, students are self-selecting the model. Districts, on the other hand, are responsible for all students in a geographic area (even when there is choice policy, there will always be a school open to everyone, including those who move into the community in 12th grade and those expelled from choice schools run by the district) and will need to think deeply about designing for the more vulnerable students, mobility, and a wide range of developmental, social-emotional, and academic needs. The K12-CBE model needs to work for everyone.

2) A related issue is that K12 is responsible for helping students build the skills to be lifelong learners, whereas IHE can screen for executive functioning skills (and prerequisite academic skills) to determine admission to competency-based programs.

3) There is much more attention to end-of-the-road credential in IHE, whereas the 13-year trajectory of K12 only focuses on credentials in the final four years of high schools.

4) IHE selects external partners based on programmatic and customer needs, whereas K12 has to consider how to build a shared vision, local accountability, and navigate the ever-changing political waters of public education.

A final difference: it looks to me like the private sector vendors have been much more responsive to the needs of IHE that are creating CBE programs than they have been to K12. Thus, some of the standards that describe what continuous improvement look like are still beyond the reach of what we can expect in K12. On second thought, perhaps we shouldn’t let that stop us from clarifying what continuous improvement should like in K12.

There is also the question in reviewing the C-BEN quality standards for higher education about what might actually be missing that we would want to see in K12. A few thoughts:

1. Where does competency education end and personalization begin? I don’t believe that higher education has been beset by the heavy fog of confusion that at times has muddled and other times deepened our understanding of personalization, personalized learning, differentiation, individualization, student-centered, deeper learning, project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, applied learning, and competency-based education (with its gaggle of of proficiency-based, mastery-based, and performance-based terminology). I even read an article recently that made a distinction between competency-based education and competency-based learning.

It’s such an exciting time in education, with so much rethinking, unpacking, co-designing, and assumption-busting. And we probably should pull ourselves together a bit, as we can’t expect the late adopters to be willing to spend their time discerning between these concepts. If we are too noisy, it will be be an obstacle of our own creation.

This all comes back to quality standards. Is it possible to have a strong competency-based system with poor instruction that hasn’t been updated on evidence-based learning sciences? Is it possible to have a strong competency-based system that isn’t using the best of what we know to personalize education in terms of relationships, relevance, engagement, and motivation? You see the problem – where does the competency-based structure stop and the personalized learning and instructional strategies end? In order to do quality standards, we are either going to have to go for the gold and design quality standards around the most robust model we can think of (think of it as a beacon that guides our conversations about where we are going) OR we narrow ourselves to defining the quality standards of the competency-based structure or the architecture that replaces the traditional time-based, sorting-focused system.

2. How would we describe quality standards for creating reliability and accountability? Despite all the efforts to introduce market-driven improvement through choice policies (and more to come), most of the 135,000 districts in our country will barely be impacted because of their size or geographic location. From what I can tell, choice is primarily, although not exclusively, an urban strategy. In K12, the primary driver to reach excellence has been accountability.

For twenty plus years, the prevalent concept of accountability was one based on transparency (a powerful value that has helped our country face up to the inequity in our schools) and a reporting-up governance. The theory is that if people are publicly shamed and blamed, they will do what it takes to improve.

As we move toward competency-based systems, a new understanding of accountability is created in that it is rooted in our country’s value of local control. It is about taking responsibility that students are progressing and reaching proficiency on the way to college and career readiness. It’s about personal commitment, shared values and accountability to students and their families. Thus, we are in search of the very best, most cost-effective models that challenge the status quo and provide excellent education to everyone, including the historically underserved populations.

As we think about quality standards for continuous improvement, this concept is going to have to be embedded within the district (i.e., local control). Thus, we talk about embedded accountability. But what are those practices and capacities that need to be in place so that when a parent reads the report card showing that their fourth grade student has an A or is proficient in reading, they can be confident that the student is reading at the performance level four? What is needed to make the system reliable? That is the only way we will be able to rebuild trust in our education system.

3. How might we design quality standards that take into account stages of implementation? K12 has another challenge – how do you separate out low quality models from the first steps, mistakes, and misunderstandings of early implementation? If we are going to set a culture of learning in our schools, we need to do so north to south, east to west throughout our entire field. Why? Because right now, our K12 system is built on mistrust, with only the most courageous willing to take risks, try something new, or challenge policies that are not based on what we know about learning and teaching. Running a school shouldn’t take courage. Public education is an essential capacity to our economy, democracy, and communities. We need to redesign our education system into K12 2.0, a virtuous cycle where we generate trust, respect, safety…the conditions needed for children and adults to learn. If we are too quick too judge, too harsh in applying criteria, too cocky about our innovation, we close the door to learning.

In the three-to-six hours I spend in a school, it is usually very, very, very hard to separate out implementation issues (both stage and effectiveness) from the quality of the model itself. I try to understand the vision and design, the implementation strategy, where they are in implementation, the depth and breadth in which staff are engaged in the conversion, and where they want to go. Complicating this is the dynamic that as districts and schools implement competency-based education, they begin to see areas of need, often around pedagogy and teacher capacity. We call them waves of improvement – let’s build our assessment literacy, learn to design and calibrate performance-based assessments, re-shape the school day to better personalize support to students…and the list goes on. Can the way we think about quality standards help all of us better understand the difference between design, stages of implementation, and waves of improvement?

Maybe this is just too complicated. Would it make a difference? In the day to day life of students and teachers, probably not. In our knowledge-building and in the ability for districts to get it right as quickly as possible, however, I think this might make an enormous difference.

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At CompetencyWorks, we’ve been thinking about this issue of quality standards a lot. We are starting to pull together different models about how to construct them from across the field of education (and beyond if we need to). If you know of one that is particularly helpful or could apply to K12, please let us know. We are also thinking about how to organize quality standards so we can more easily see the similarities within higher education to allow learning across the sectors to be expedited.