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Aurora Institute

When Is It Competency Education? And When Is It Not?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started

Photo by Jorge Machado

It’s getting popular. Many schools claim to be using competency education. Does offering adaptive software or blended learning immediately make a school competency-based?

It’s getting confusing. Blended/online learning and competency education are often used interchangeably, even if the blended learning is being used in a totally time-based system.

What to do?  We need some common language. So here is a first cut using a competency-based grading model. (A note: I use course to describe a unit of learning and level to describe a band of learning along the full K-12 learning progression, which we refer to as grades such as 1st or 10th grade in the time-based system) :

Lack of evidence:  A school isn’t competency-based because they say they are.  They are going to need to be able to clearly articulate in which way they are and in which ways they aren’t.

Emerging:  A school has a few elements such as using blended learning or adaptive software.  Perhaps they offer dual enrollment, early college, or AP so that students can advance beyond K-12 expectations.  Perhaps they have been starting to implement a few pieces of competency education but don’t have a fully developed model yet. They’ve got standards-based grading in place or they’ve built in time in the daily schedule for everyone in the school to get extra help or work on their schoolwork.

Core: A competency-based school has to offer the following. These elements ensure that students that might be passed along with a C and a D in the time-based system are now getting a robust education. I just don’t see how it can be competency-based without it:

  • Student-centered assessment of students’ skills when they enter a school that drives instruction and/or tracking learning progressions – this means that it is not just course-based;
  • Transparent competencies, learning objectives, and rubrics: It’s a non-negotiable. Students have to know what they are expected to learn and what proficient looks like. Competencies include academic ones that are assessed and graded separately from the lifelong learning habits.
  • Competency-based grading with some ability for students to return at later points to meet and exceed proficiency.  Thus…it’s a dynamic GPA, not one set in time.
  • Embedded supports and structured flexibility of time:  Students that need extra help get it when they need it. Students that need more time get it. At least to some degree.

Bottom line:  Students are either proficient according to the developed learning progressions (CCSS or school-based) that are on track to college/career readiness, or they are on an intentional trajectory for getting them back on track.  Once behind should never, ever mean forever behind. It’s simple– they are either on-track or getting-on-track. There is no more off-track.

High-Flying: We are on the edge of an entirely new understanding of what education can look like when students really can fly as high as they want in their K-12 education without us holding them back.

Some refer to it as self-paced. It’s not that the students are learning at whatever rate that they want. We know pacing matters. Self-paced means that they are going at or beyond the on-track pace. In our factory-belt mode we assume that is on to the next course. But it’s not. Beyond means what it says–  once on-track students can advance to the next course OR they can explore what is interesting to them. Think of a bird. Rarely is flight a straight line.

There are some examples of high-flying schools across the country that are flying past time-based constraints. In addition to the schools that are proficient in providing competency education, these schools offer some of the following elements as well.

  • Open Entry/Open Exit: Students should be able to enter a school or course in a way that they are able to jump into their education based on their own learning progression. Schools with high mobility know that this is hard to do and can cause disruption in the classroom for everyone. Trimesters and modularizing courses can help to make it easier to engage students.   Blended learning is a powerful solution to this issue. Seriously, what’s preventing us from getting kids the minute they transfer or re-enroll into a personalized, blended learning environment supported by a dynamic instructor until we can stream them into a classroom in small peer groups?Open exit is where we are holding our nation back. What happens if a student finishes a course early? What are we going to do with them?  High-flying schools have the capacity to move onto the next course immediately. It’s seamless. However, we still haven’t fully explored all the options for students that fly through a course.We may not get perfect open entry/open exit…but we can aim for it.
  • Unfettered advancement upon mastery:  Students can progress upon mastery on learning targets within a course and can progress to the next course. Sometimes we see this within a school. However, rarely do we see absolute seamlessness across the institutional boundaries of elementary to middle to high school to college. There is a whole busload of constraints that are going to have to be deconstructed to make this happen.

We really do need to create some common language to guide our understanding of competency education, learn from each other, and stay on top of advancements. The truth of the matter is that even those schools that have highly developed competency –based models are still probably light years away of what it will actually look like a decade from now.  Imagine what is possible with blended learning supported by a competency-based system and seamless access to higher level courses post-secondary education and training.

I’m sure there are better ways than what I’ve just proposed to guide our development as a nation. Your thoughts?