Momentum for Competency Education in Iowa

January 15, 2013 by
Sandra Dop, Iowa Dept of Education

Sandra Dop, Iowa Dept of Education

Iowa’s Competency-based Instruction Task Force has released its preliminary report.  State leadership in Iowa has been calling for competency education for over three years.  This engaging report  provides recommendations for how the state should move forward.  With a meeting being organized in June, momentum is building in Iowa.

One of the questions that comes over and over again are what are the ways we should be thinking about the metrics that could be helpful in guiding implementation and benchmarking districts and schools.  It’s a tough question and needs a thoughtful approach.  The Iowa report starts to give a glimpse at some of these process and outputs as it reviews the findings from researchers that visited the two districts charging forth on competency education, Spirit Lake and Muscatine (see Elizabeth Sturm’s post, a senior at Muscatine High).

In Muscatine researchers looked at grades, the distribution of students based on where they were on learning progressions (remediation, intensive interventions, and acceleration) and opinions of teachers.

The district and community were increasingly concerned about a graduation rate that fluctuated below the state average. Following implementation of the pilot projects, zero percent of students earned Ds or Fs in competency-based education classrooms, compared to 38 percent of all students in the 2011-12 school year. Additional data points expand the positive impact of competency-based education:

  • Six percent of the students engaged in learning contracts or short-term remediation to reach proficiency prior to the end of a term;
  • Four percent of the students needed intensive remediation, which required additional time beyond the term;
  • Three percent of the students were able to accelerate their learning through content or a course;
  • Teacher support for the methodology was rated at 85 percent, as evidenced through a district-wide survey following building presentations in the fall of 2012.

At Spirit Lake researchers looked at the depth of learning, attendance and disciplinary action:

An Iowa Department of Education researcher who visited Spirit Lake in the last week of the January term reported that during 53 percent of the observations, students were engaged in the upper two levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (evaluate, create) and, in fact, during 77 percent of the observations, students were engaged in the upper three levels of Bloom’s (analyze, evaluate, create). This is in stark contrast to what had recently been observed in many Iowa high schools, where a significant majority of the tasks were in the bottom three levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (remember, understand, apply). Students were able to articulate what they were learning and why, as well as what they had learned about themselves and their own strengths and abilities. The district reported that aggregate excused absences dropped from 229.5 during the 15 days prior to J-Term (December 2011) to 149 during J-Term (January 2012); unexcused absences dropped from 9.5 to 4.5; and the number of office referrals dropped from 13 to 3.

Of course these positive indicators could be a Hawthorne effect. However, given that competency education poorly implemented with low standards and rigidity, the early indicators out of Iowa look like their implementation of competency education is moving in the right direction!

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