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Aurora Institute

Which Pilot Do You Want Flying Your Plane?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Brian Stack

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

apLast week I had the opportunity to deliver the keynote to a large group of school administrators from Oregon at their 2013 State Proficiency Conference, sponsored jointly by the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators (COSA) and the Business Education Compact (BEC) in Portland. I began my talk by sharing with the group how I explained the idea of competency-based grading to a woman, Kathy, whom I shared a plane ride with on my way to Oregon. Kathy was very curious to learn more about competency-based grading. She is a mother of three and lives in the Portland area. Her oldest just graduated from high school and is now in the Air Force. She has another child in middle school and her youngest is in elementary school. As a result, she is very invested in educational reforms that promise to give her children a better future.

To help her understand the competency-based system, I asked her to hypothetically consider how the pilot school was organized that our airline pilot attended. We both agreed that in order to be able to fly our plane that day, he had to have been deemed “proficient” by his pilot school. We can only assume that his school taught him everything he needed to know about being a pilot. I offered her two hypothetical situations about the pilot school, and I asked her to then consider which school she thought was better.

School #1: The Traditional School
At school #1, the pilot completed a series of readings, homework, and classwork assignments, participated in class discussions about those assignments, and took quizzes and tests to demonstrate that he understood the material that was presented in class. Some of his quizzes and tests were done on paper or the computer and some were “performance-based” (meaning that likely he had to actually fly a simulator or an actual plane with an instructor). His final grade was obtained by weighting all of his assignments appropriately (quizzes and tests counted more) and averaging everything together. Since his average was above an 80%, he was deemed “proficient” and was awarded his pilot’s license.

School #2: The Competency-Based School
At school #2, the pilot completed all of the same types of readings, assignments and assessments just like in the traditional school. Some of his quizzes and tests were done on paper and some were performance-based, just like the traditional school. The difference in this school was that each of the assessments he took were directly linked to competencies that looked something like this:
Competency #1: The student will learn how to successfully make a plane take-off.
Competency #2: The student will learn how to successfully land a plane.
Competency #3: The student will learn how to successfully fly a plane in the air.
The pilot was not considered “proficient” in pilot school until he demonstrated proficiency in each competency. Once he did, he would be deemed “proficient” and awarded his pilot’s license.

Which School Was Better?
Kathy had a hard time answering this question until I offered her this critical hint: In the traditional school, it is possible to fail an individual assessment provided the grades on other assessments and assignments were high enough so that the final course average was still above an 80%. Knowing this, what if the one test the pilot failed happened to be the one on how to land a plane? Suddenly, it was clear to Kathy that a traditional model is a flawed system because it allows students to be deemed proficient when in reality there are gaps in their learning. This is the danger of averaging grades without first connecting them to learning targets.
I shared this story with the Oregon administrators because I often feel one of the biggest struggles school administrators have when transforming their schools is finding effective ways to communicate with stakeholders, particularly parents and students who sometimes don’t understand the complexities that can often be associated with competency-based grading practices. Keeping things simple can allow these stakeholders to become advocates and supporters for the transformation process, which ultimately will make or break whether or not a school reform initiative will succeed. I hope that my message was well received.


You can view my full presentation from Oregon here.

Brian M. Stack is the National Association of Secondary School Principals 2017 New Hampshire Secondary School Principal of the Year. He is Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH, an author for Solution Tree, and also serves as an expert for, a division of the National Center for Learning Disabilities in Washington, DC. He lives with his wife Erica and his five children Brady, Cameron, Liam, Owen, and Zoey on the New Hampshire seacoast. You can follow Brian on Twitter @bstackbu or visit his blog.