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Aurora Institute

Why Should Schools Transition to Competency-Based Education?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Sandra Moumoutjis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Lead Change and Innovation, Commit to Equity, Rethink Instruction


Students Doing Medical WorkAs we continue our third year of school affected by a global pandemic, we are not the same as we were before. Our normal way of doing school did not prepare us to support students, families, and teachers when everything changed. We are now forced to reckon with the glaring inequalities of our one-size fits all, grade-based, age-based, and time-based traditional school structures. We can’t go back to the way things were before, but the systems and structures of traditional education are powerful. They are deeply rooted in us all and it is easy to slip back to the comfort of the way things have always been instead of moving forward to the way we need to do things now.

I have read many articles about the lessons learned during the pandemic, about how schools that were competency-based and focused on personalized learning were better equipped to transition to remote learning. I have also experienced this first-hand in our Building 21 lab schools in Philadelphia and Allentown. When students shifted to remote learning, our students were able to continue their learning aligned to our Building 21 Competencies and Continua. Our competency tracking platform allowed students to continue working on their assigned performance tasks and transparently know where they were and what they needed to complete in each of their competency portfolios.

Engaging students remotely during the pandemic was a problem for everyone, but for our students, if they didn’t engage, they did not fail or have to repeat a course. They could continue where they left off in their competency portfolios once they were ready. And now that students are back in person, I am watching students’ portfolios fill up as they re-engage and continue to work towards demonstrating mastery of the competencies. One student that struggled to engage remotely is back in person and he is determined to still graduate this year. He is working with his teachers to find additional opportunities to demonstrate his learning and complete his portfolios, which also demonstrates his ability to persevere through setbacks, seek support and resources, and improve his work habits.

Now that students are back in-person, we are all realizing just how much they have missed of their school experience—our 10th grade students, whose last uninterrupted year of school was 7th grade, are now  in a high school for the first time. There is no doubt that a loss occurred over the past 2 years—a loss of academic learning time, a social and emotional loss, and a loss of experiences that we always took for granted, like walking across the stage on graduation day. We won’t fully know the effects of these losses for years to come, but we know we must address them and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this problem.

So is it time to make the move to competency-based education?

As Building 21 grows our Learning Innovation Network to support more schools and districts, we have many schools reaching out to us because they want to transition to a competency-based learning model. The first question we always ask is: Why? Why is CBE right for you? What problem are you trying to solve and how will CBE help you solve that problem? And then the second, and third (and sometimes the fourth and fifth) question we ask is: Why?

Transitioning to personalized and competency-based learning is no small decision. It is not just about choosing and implementing a set of competencies. Making this change requires shifts in so many areas—mindset and culture shifts, teaching and instructional shifts, structure and systems shifts. It requires a process to simultaneously support these shifts for both adults and students over a longer period of time. It is not a quick or immediate solution, but it can be a lasting and permanent solution to a problem that has persisted and is only getting worse.

There are certain elements of school that seem resistant and too hard to change. I recently read David F. Labaree’s article, The Dynamic Tension at the Core of the Grammar of Schooling, that discussed this problem of the invisible rules that comprise the seemingly unchangeable grammar of schooling: age-based student groupings, discrete subjects (math, science, English, and social studies), elementary school students staying with one teacher all year while high school students move through period after period with different teachers, each teaching their discrete subject. Labaree suggests that these “most deeply entrenched school practices…strike a balance between what we want our schools to do and what those schools can realistically accomplish. These two forces are continually in tension, and their constant pushing and pulling, back and forth, drives the slow evolution of American education and leads, every so often, to meaningful change.”

Labaree argues that, in order to change the grammar of schooling, the initiative must both “meet the schools’ larger social purposes and meet the organizational needs of the school system. To put it another way, schooling must be not just worth doing but also doable.” There have been many things written about how hard it is to transition to CBE, and a few beginning to question if it is worth all the hard work. I agree that the work of CBE is hard and requires committing to long-term and systemic change. It requires open communication, transparency, personal and professional development, time, and resources. But is it worth doing and doable?

Over the past nine years, Building 21 has designed our CBE model to address both the social purpose and organizational needs of the schools and districts we work with. We strongly believe transitioning to personalized and competency-based learning is not only worth doing, but is also doable. But it is not easy—though how could it be easy to change traditional schooling that has been in place for over a hundred years? In order to break down those traditional structures—the grammar of schooling—you need to replace it with something. And for us, CBE has become the new grammar of schooling, where students progress based on evidence of mastery and not seat time, and equity for all students is embedded in the culture, beliefs, practices, structures, and systems of our schools.

When I look back on my career in education and all the new initiatives that have been tried and failed, the sentiment that this is just a fad and it won’t last, nothing has solved the enduring problem—that school is not designed to meet the needs of all learners. No curriculum, or computer program, or after-school program alone has worked. We acknowledge the problem is big, persistent, systemic, and difficult, yet we continue to look for easy and quick solutions. A true and lasting solution to address the problems we are facing now will be disruptive and difficult and will take place over a longer period of time. It will challenge us in ways we have never been challenged before. The sooner we acknowledge this, the sooner we can begin the journey to competency-based education.

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Sandra Moumoutjis PhotoSandra Moumoutjis is the Executive Director of Building 21’s Learning Innovation Network which is designed to grow and support a community of schools and districts as they transition to competency-based education. Through professional development and coaching, Sandra supports schools and districts in all aspects of the change management process. Sandra is the co-designer of Building 21’s Competency Framework and instructional model. Prior to working for Building 21, Sandra was a teacher, a K-12 reading specialist, literacy coach, and educational consultant in districts across the country.