This is the second article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders. For those of you who are new to competency education, you might want to start with this article explaining what it is. For those of you already familiar, jump to the third part of this series.
During the last few years, the phrase competency education has come into vogue. You may have heard it being used to refer to self-paced online learning or to describe innovations in higher education. This series is focused on the transformation of the time-based K–12 system where the focus is on inputs (seat-time, hours in the day, minutes in each class) to a system where the focus is on learning.
Understanding Competency Education
The power of competency education is in its system-wide infrastructure that creates the necessary feedback loops to ensure students are learning. The five-part working definition of competency education describes the elements that need to be put into place to re-engineer the education system to reliably produce student learning:
- Students advance upon demonstrated mastery;
- Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students;
- Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students;
- Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; and
- Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.
Competency education is often described with the phrase, “Learning is constant, and time is the variable.” We know that students learn differently, requiring more or less time for different reasons. They may be at different points along the learning continuum, each with a different set of skills. Students may have different approaches to learning, with some students preferring to take more time upfront to dive more deeply into learning to master new skills or content. Certainly the levels of academic support available outside of school differ. All of these dynamics lead to students learning at different paces. However, flexible pacing, or the concept that “students advance upon mastery,” is only one of the five elements of the definition. In competency education, timely, differentiated support is equally important, as that is what allows students to continue progressing without being left behind. Teachers work with students to ensure they are filling any gaps in foundational skills, and schools provide timely support so students can get immediate help when they are struggling.
The traditional system produces gaps in learning because it is established around a time-based Carnegie Unit credit that guarantees a minimal exposure to content without a guarantee of learning. In combination with an A–F grading system—which can be easily corrupted as a measure of learning by providing points for behavior, allowing for measurements based on assignments instead of learning, and masking student progress through the averaging of grades—accountability for learning is eroded. The accountability policies developed under No Child Left Behind have exposed the achievement gaps in this system, but are unable to lead to its elimination because of the inherent flaws in the time-based system. In competency education, the key to improving achievement for underserved student populations—racial/ethnic, language, income, and special education needs—depends on several factors and elements that keep equity at the core. These include: making learning expectations and the process of determining proficiency transparent; supporting students to build the habits of learning they need to be lifelong learners; monitoring student progress and pace to ensure the school is being responsive to student needs while also informing the professional development of teachers; and upholding strong continuous improvement efforts. In this way, accountability is embedded into the system itself.
Why Do Educators Turn to Competency Education?
There are many reasons districts and communities turn to competency education: an economy where postsecondary education and training is needed to get on a career path to a family-wage job; a global economy expanding the playing field on which students will be competing for jobs; demographic changes that demand we eliminate patterns of inequity; and an ever-changing world that requires lifelong learning skills. Many districts turn to competency education with the growing realization that no matter what programs, instructional models, or curriculum they put into place, the best they can hope for in the traditional time-based, one-size-fits-all system are marginal improvements. That’s because the design of the traditional system—with students advancing from grade to grade without successfully building the necessary skills—is getting in their way.
Once they understand the design flaws of the traditional system, educators seek a system that is designed for success, not for sorting. They envision a system that is able to personalize learning while ensuring that all students will benefit. It only makes sense—we know students start with different sets of skills, learn in different ways, have different levels of support in their families and communities to help them with academic learning, and take different amounts of time and practice to master skills. Thus, the system needs to be designed to be more responsive to students’ needs, as well as their strengths and interests. Learning is the constant; resources, learning experiences, instructional support, resources, effort, and time may vary.
As educators become familiar with the elements of competency education, they begin to see the power of developing clearly defined learning objectives and rubrics. The focus is now on what students are learning, not what activities they are doing. Student agency (the ability of students to own or manage their learning process), engagement, and motivation are increased when learning objectives are transparent. Students have more options about how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning. Teachers can become more creative in how they design curriculum and instruction. Access to data on student progress allows education leaders to manage continuous improvement.
For more information, explore this whole blog series: