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Aurora Institute

Three Driving Questions for Developing High-Quality Competency-Based Systems

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Evaluate Quality

This is the sixth blog in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and how we might be able to advance the field.

One of my big a-ha moments in the process of the Technical Assistance Group on Quality (thanks to all of you!) is that we couldn’t define quality until we were able to explain what a competency-based structure was more precisely. Remember, we take the position that the traditional system is a barrier to both equity and excellence, as it is designed around a belief that some kids are just smarter than others and there isn’t much to do about it, so part of the job of schools is to rank and sort students. If we are going to identify the parts of the traditional system that are problematic, we are going to have to replace them with something else. That something else is competency-based education. Thus, the efforts to define quality started with the question of what a competency-based structure is.

Below is the introduction to the paper In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System. Tomorrow’s article will begin to answer these questions. We are looking forward to your reaction.

Efficacy, the degree to which something is successful in producing a desired result, is at the heart of competency-based education. After centuries of educating America’s children in schools that are designed to sort students, we are shifting from the traditional one-size-fits-all system and replacing it with a system that personalizes learning within a competency-based structure to ensure that every student is making progress toward college and career readiness (academic, higher order, and lifelong learning skills). In other words, competency-based education seeks to create a system that effectively supports students to learn to high expectations not for some, but for every student.

In order to advance the field of competency education, it is important that educators and policymakers create a shared understanding of what a high quality competency-based system looks like. Beginning to define what quality means in a competency-based system based on practitioner knowledge can expedite the process of states, districts, and school adopting these new structures and approaches. This includes clarifying how the structures and approaches incorporate equity strategies to ensure historically underserved students will benefit and thrive.  More importantly, having a shared understanding of high quality competency-based schools will position us to better serve and educate students today and not postpone it until some future date. We simply cannot allow students to continue to be passed on year after year to the next grade without the skills they need to be successful.

Attendees at the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education will explore three questions related to defining what high quality means in a competency-based district or school:  

1. What are the common elements of the structure in competency-based schools? This section begins with breaking schools into four components: structure, culture, learning and teaching, and learning experiences. Although the working definition has been helpful in engaging people in what it means to be competency-based (and at the Summit, we will be seeking ideas about how to strengthen the working definition), it has not provided an operational explanation of a competency-based structure. The goal is to provide more definition to what it means to have a competency-based structure. If some of the features of the traditional system include creating barriers to learning or perpetuating inequity, they must be eliminated and replaced with something else. In order for us to be able to describe quality, it requires us to be more clear about the structural components.

2. What are the features one might expect to see in a high quality competency-based school? In this section, we will consider initial ideas of how quality might be defined in a competency-based system given that there are a number of models. The discussion of nine domains of competency-based structure offers key questions that might be asked on a site visit to understand the design and features are included, as well as “look-fors” and examples that would lead to a high quality structure.  

It is nearly impossible to talk about quality features of a competency-based learning system in a district or school without touching upon the overall personalized learning approaches and instructional strategies. Although we attempt to frame competency education as a structure,  personalized learning as an overall approach, and pedagogical principles as the theory of action about learning and teaching, there are certainly places where they overlap. Thus, this work requires disentangling structure from approach and pedagogy while also understanding how they intersect and reinforce one another.

3. What are the approaches that can be used to promote quality in a competency-based system? In the final section, four approaches are explored that could be used as strategies to improve quality outcomes, processes, design, and quality reviews with the understanding that they are not mutually exclusive. It also includes an extensive discussion on college and career readiness given its importance in shaping graduation outcomes. The hope is that the Summit discussion might produce recommendations on how we, as a field, can develop a strategy to accelerate the process for districts and schools to implement high quality competency-based systems.

Our hope is to draw upon the collective knowledge of practitioners and others with valuable expertise to build emerging ideas. We invite you to share your feedback to these driving questions for ensuring quality in personalized, competency-based systems.  

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