Iowa was one of the states that charged out of the gates toward competency-based education in 2012 by establishing a state level Competency-Based Education Task Force and a five-year, ten-district pilot initiative. The resulting Iowa CBE Collaborative achievements were many:
- Education code was created to support competency-based education. Iowa Department of Education (2015) Code, 281—IAC 12.5(14) states that if a school district is using competency-based pathways, a unit of credit in grades 9-12 “requires the demonstration of proficiency of formal competencies associated with the course according to the State Guidelines for Competency-Based Education or its successor organization or it is an equated requirement as a part of an innovative program filed as prescribed in rule 281— 12.9(256)” (p. 59). The code further specifies that “(t)he number of hours a school or school district provides for content areas/courses in grades K-8 is locally determined” (p. 59), so K-8 schools may also advance students based on proficiency rather than based on seat time. (See The History of CBE in Iowa.)
- A jumpstart to the process to clarify what it means to be college and career ready.
- Exemplar competencies co-created with districts.
- Early indications that students were responding positively to the changes.
One district, Cedar Rapids, created an innovative model called Iowa BIG that pushed learning into the community. However, many of the pilots in the ten districts were based in a few classrooms and failed to implement the necessary school-wide structure for systemic change. Changes in state education leadership and budget woes put the effort on a bit of a back burner and terminated the pilots after four years, but staff and a number of the districts pushed forward.
Today, the competency-based efforts in Iowa are being integrated with student-centered and personalized learning by a multi-stakeholder collaboration. The Center is seeking to transform public education by integrating student-centered learning, competency-based education, and personalized learning. In addition to five of the ten original CBE Collaborative districts, The Center network includes representatives from all the Area Education Agencies (AEAs), AEA Learning Online, Iowa JAG, West Wind, Iowa ASCD, School Administrators of Iowa (SAI), Future Ready Iowa, and four higher education institutions (Drake University, Kirkwood Community College, The University of Iowa, and Simpson College).
I had the opportunity to talk with Andrea Stewart, Director of The Center, about the efforts in Iowa. Stewart emphasized the importance of “creating a broad base of multiple stakeholders who are bringing their perspectives to bear throughout the process.” The Center leadership council includes thirty people from across the state so that there is decentralized leadership. The Center wants to engage students within the leadership council as well, and the hope is that the distributive leadership structure of The Center will be replicated across the states with multi-stakeholder hubs of innovation.
The Center is designing its approach to supporting innovation by meeting districts, schools, and people where they are on a path toward a vision of student-centered, personalized, competency-based education. Stewart said that being able to participate in the Education Reimagined network has been helpful and inspiring to many of the leaders from Iowa: “It’s nice to be in a tribe and find like-minded people from across the country.” She also said that the conversations at Education Reimagined were helpful in reflecting on how competency-based education had developed in Iowa without enough depth and attention to being student-centered. “Through the conversations at Education Reimagined Pioneer Labs, we started to have a much better understanding of how the different pieces converged into a full system around learners.” She also noted that mindset and systems design are only some of the puzzle pieces. “It’s equally as important to ensure both pedagogy and andragogy is fully aligned around how students learn.”
Stewart described how The Center is approaching transformation by emphasizing that “We are layering on the foundation that is already in place. In essence, we are personalizing the approach of school transformation. When we think about a learner-centered system, we want it to apply to both students and adults.” The Center is also having conversations with teacher prep and administrator prep programs to infuse the strategies of personalized, competency-based education into their practices.
To support districts and schools in the development of their competency-based approaches, The Center has developed the Innovation Configuration Map (adapted from the original five elements of the CompetencyWorks working definition). It is designed for districts and schools to self-assess and plan what they want to put into place next. Stewart described a micro-credential overlay that is integrated in a data dashboard in order to help teachers and leaders think about and build the expertise they need to implement the steps in the Innovation Configuration Map. The revisions continue this summer to also create a walk-through protocol to support the Innovation Configuration Map, which will be the third piece in a suite of tools to triangulate perceptions about the shifts, perhaps the most important of which is a student survey. (Readers, you might want to look at the Kettle Moraine School District Personalized Learning Look Fors and the Sanborn Regional School District Competency Education School Design Rubric for similar approaches.)
Recognizing the leadership role The Center is playing, the Iowa Department of Education has deputized representatives from The Center to participate in the CCSSO Innovation Lab Network (ILN). The partnerships The Center is making across the US through the ILN are invaluable to the growth of CBE in Iowa. One of the cross-state projects is to explore how to build educator capacity to transform to a learner-centered system. In particular, The Center would like to build the capacity to measure the impact of teacher practice shifts on student learning, engagement, and future-readiness.
I think the story of Iowa has important lessons for all of us. I worry that competency-based education could be one of those reforms that hits a high point and then fades away only to return in another twenty years with greater knowledge and expertise to inform it. However, it is stories like Iowa’s that make me think personalized, competency-based education is here to stay. As in Iowa, too many district and school leaders understand that the architecture of the traditional system is actually the biggest barrier to school improvement. They simply aren’t willing to keep doing things that are not aligned with what we know about how students learn. This is a good thing for our field; we want it to be informed, driven, and led by educational practitioners who want to do and are willing to take a stand to do what is best for kids.