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Does Competency Education Mean the Same Thing for K-12 and Higher Education?

June 19, 2014 by

houstonhighwayOver the past two months, I’ve had several invitations to discuss the intersection of higher education (HE) and K12 in competency education. It makes sense to see these two sectors of education as one huge movement. Both receive complaints from their customers of poor and inconsistent quality (i.e., students are ill prepared for advanced studies and entry into the workforce). Both sectors are turning to greater personalization, online and blended learning and competency education to help them improve their systems. It’s easy to leap to the conclusion, especially if you are a systems thinker who jumps for joy when alignment is in the air, that the pieces are all going to snap into place.

No matter what we all imagine, no matter how beautiful our maps of an aligned system are, there are two important things to remember. First, in a personalized world where students have agency, we have to let go of our mental model of a linear, conveyor belt model. We need to think about adaptive systems. If you need a picture to hold in your mind, think highways with lots of on and off ramps.

Second, there may be risks in talking about HE’s and K12’s transition to competency education as one and the same. Certainly both emphasize progress upon mastery. However, much of the drive for change in HE is to reduce tuition costs, whereas in K12 it is to personalize education so that all students get what they need to succeed. Thus, the K12 focus is on cost-effectiveness, not cost reduction. This may have large implications about what is emphasized and how models develop. Furthermore, our efforts will come to a grinding halt if we lead policymakers to assume that they can reduce budgets in K12 competency education systems. We can explore competency education in both sectors without advancing the idea that they are the same thing.

I’m now going to break a rule of blogging with a very long exploration of the intersection of competency education across K12 and HE. I start by exploring the similarities, differences and intersection of the two systems and close by looking at the implications of the different contexts in which competency education is developing in each sector.

1.     Commonalities, Differences and Variations:  There are numerous common themes across competency education in K12 and HE, each with a number of important variations in their evolution and implementation. I’ll use the working definition of competency education to structure this conversation.

A.     Progress Upon Mastery

Students graduate from high school and then find themselves in remedial classes when they arrive at college (a circumstance that reduces their chances of graduating). Isn’t there a better way? What if college placement exams were available in 11th grade so students knew exactly how well they were doing based on the college of their dreams. California State University has an early assessment program that does exactly that. If a competency framework stretches from 12th grade into the college freshman year, students would know exactly where they need to strengthen their skills while in high school. Furthermore, once they arrive at college, they need only work in areas in which they have gaps, rather than reviewing what they already know.

The other big issue is how to make sure high school students have access to higher-level courses. Certainly, we should begin with dual enrollment structures. However, we’ll need to expand them more and more so students can fly beyond the limits of high school academically while still participating in band and senior prom. We are already pushing up against budgetary limits, and it’s possible we’ll hit institutional constraints as well. Perhaps online providers could offer both high school and college freshman courses that are structured with agreed-upon criteria for proficiency.  As we dismantle grade level ceilings, allowing students to soar, we are going to need to rethink how we provide and fund higher education courses for students who want to continue their high school experience.

B.     Transparency and Transferability of Expectations

Competency education doesn’t work unless there is a shared understanding of what proficiency looks like. K12 has the Common Core and other state standards in place, so a lot of the work is already done. It’s a more challenging task to define proficiency for higher education within institutions and across institutions, given how many times students transfer. Is Marketing 101 teaching you the same skills regardless of which institution you took it at? What about liberal arts, which is often just as much about supporting the development of young adults as it is about critical thinking skills or literacy skills? Should we expect the same set of skills from a freshman literature course, regardless of where it was taken?

The overlapping area between K-12 and higher education, which to date we have allowed to be labeled as the “college admissions process,” suddenly becomes less mysterious if competency frameworks are built on both sides. The increasing racial and class stratification of higher education can be mediated by making explicit what prerequisite skills are required, and the learning objectives and levels of proficiency expected in freshman college courses.  Students in high school then have the information they need to make sure they are prepared. Senior year suddenly becomes a time to boost skills so that students are ready for college without remediation.

This is going to require tuning or calibration across the sectors. Calibration is going to be complicated by more selective colleges and universities having higher standards for freshman courses.  In addition, community colleges may raise or lower their bar for placement without remediation as a method of managing changes in enrollment. Thus, we are going to have to create language to describe variations in college readiness rather than thinking of it as a static standard.

Given that most districts do not provide more than 20% of the alternative schools needed to meet the needs of students who are over-age and under-credit, we might also see colleges become willing to help these students complete their courses or meet the expectations of a proficiency-based high school diploma. The Gateway to College model could easily be adjusted to a competency-based approach.

Some degree of calibration between higher education and high schools would be incredibly powerful. Calibration is a complex task, given the dynamics within higher education. Perhaps we could start with state university systems? Or perhaps state education agencies and their higher education partner could begin to convene leaders to figure out how to move forward. We haven’t seen much calibration across K12 systems yet, so at best these would be early conversations. Perhaps we could create a digital “wall of student work” to show examples of what different institutions and K12 systems think proficiency looks like at the top of the Common Core standards and freshman courses at different types of colleges.

C.     Assessment (and Credentialing)

The emphasis on assessment is pretty different between the two sectors. In K12, we make sure that assessment is part of the learning cycle as much as possible and advocate that state summative assessments be considered more as a quality control mechanism designed to help districts and schools improve than the core part of a top-down accountability system.

Currently, the discussions about competency-based college programs are emphasizing summative assessment as credentialing of skills. For example, competency education in HE includes the concept of direct assessment, which recognizes skills students have developed elsewhere. As higher education moves forward in becoming competency-based, I would assume that there will be a growing emphasis on formative feedback. However, this may be a huge, HUGE, stretch for many college professors, who have not taken training to be teachers. Certainly, you hear language pop up in the K12 system about “testing out,” but it is rarely in the context of well-developed competency systems designed to get all students college-ready.

Higher education is also thinking about different ways of aggregating credits beyond a degree. There are discussions about stackable credentials and a credentialing eco-system. Badging is also taking hold, especially in the world of technology as the field changes more rapidly than most HE institutions can upgrade curriculum. Once people grasp the core concepts of competency education, they see the enormous potential for creating an entirely new way for youth and adults to build their skills in institutions of higher education.

Perhaps the difference in emphasis might be captured as K12 competency education is designed to respond to the question, “How can we help students learn?” and at this point higher education is emphasizing, “What did they learn?” as much as how to help them learn. However, once HE clarifies the outcomes for what they expect students to know and be able to do, I would expect the conversation within HE to increasingly focus on design of the programs, instruction and supports.

D.     Timely Supports

K12 spends a lot more (although I would argue, not enough) time figuring out how to get supports to students. These include grouping/regrouping so that students are getting instructional support, time in the day for students to get help, the use of adaptive software to boost skills, and access to online courses to tackle standards and competencies when students are not yet proficient. Supports also include after-school care, social-emotional learning, and advocacy/referral for other services. Finally, districts are increasingly providing “multiple pathways to graduation” by expediting re-enrollment and more high quality alternative schools for students who need more intensive support.

We haven’t seen much conversation about the necessary supports for competency-based higher education, but it’s early still. Western Governors University has dedicated mentors to help students stay on pace and problem-solve when things get tough. Colleges also are figuring out what it takes to help students complete college within the traditional system. That will certainly inform colleges as they convert to competency education.

E.     Learning Outcomes: Academic, Lifelong Learning, and Technical Competencies

Throughout the course of K12 and HE, all three sets of competencies – academic, lifelong learning (deeper learning or habits) and career/technical skills – are important, with technical skills becoming more important the closer students get to entering the labor market.  Some students may start acquiring job-related skills in high school, while others go to college in order to get technical skills, and others may delay building technical skills until after graduating from college (think law and medicine). These competencies are actually quite intertwined as habits and even rudimentary technical skills are needed to apply the academic skills. Thus, they really do need to be seen as three equally valuable sets of skills.

In K12, we start off with a solid foundation of what it is we want students to know and be able to do, defined by state standards and EPIC’s college and career readiness skills (although EPIC is missing important pieces of career readiness).

Whereas the challenge for K12 is to make sure the competencies are aligned with freshman college courses (not with admissions, as colleges accept students who do not have the necessary prerequisite skills and then place them into remediation), HE has to align with employers.  Thus, HE is starting with career-related competency-based degrees. For example, College for America has already created two BAs in health care management and communications. WGU’s programs are in business, teaching, information management and health professions.  It’s going to get very interesting to see how HE re-thinks liberal arts in the language of competencies. College for America’s nine competency clusters gives us a taste of what’s to come.

We know that competency education emphasizes both academic skills and lifelong learning competencies (or habits of work and study). EPIC recommends a long list of meta-cognitive learning skills that include adaptability, collaboration, study skills and self-efficacy. Most K12 schools use very basic rubrics such as “consistently demonstrated” or “rarely demonstrated.” QED Foundation’s rubrics are the most specific and meaningful I’ve seen so far. However, I haven’t seen much discussion from HE about this topic. They can always turn to SCAN skills or the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. However, my guess is that they will want to do some clarification on their own, especially to emphasize the skills and dispositions developed in liberal arts programs.

We haven’t talked much about CTE and competency education at CompetencyWorks. Even though CTE has been competency-based for well over a decade, I’ve been hesitant to write about it much because of the risk that competency education would be dismissed as only for CTE. Our country is so ambivalent about class and job classifications that once something is seen as career-focused, it seems it can be dismissed as no longer college-focused. Rationally, we know that this differentiation should carry only so much weight, but we also know that the four-year college degree still promises a higher income.

An invaluable aspect of competency education for higher education is to tighten the relationship with employers to ensure that the competencies students are building in a technical course or program are up-to-date. I’d anticipate the most uptake of competency education by colleges and universities that have career/tech programs. I’m also hearing that there is tremendous innovation in this area as well – to be covered in another blog on another day.

2. Context: Cost Reduction or Cost-Effectiveness

As I’ve stated, I think we need to proceed, but proceed with caution. At the highest level, the overall concept of competency education is the same in HE and K12 – advancement upon mastery. However, the force behind the reform is somewhat different, and the difference could have huge implications for how things unfold.

HE is largely being driven by the question, How can we reduce the cost of HE? The increases in the cost of a college degree are the primary driver for transforming higher education. They’ve risen over 500% since 1985!!!!! Higher education is searching for ways to offer a college experience that allows students to achieve, more quickly and inexpensively, the set of skills they need to enter the workforce. The policy environment, multiple sources of funding for higher education and the Carnegie unit as the administrative unit create different challenges for higher education than for K12. (If you want to know more, check out Cracking the Credit Hour. In fall 2014, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching will produce a report looking in detail at many of the issues tied to the Carnegie unit.)

K12 is being driven by other forces. State leadership and educators turn to competency education in the K12 system because: 1) They have a moral imperative to “do what is best for kids;” 2) They have concerns that the traditional system reproduces inequity; 3) They wish to offer a much higher degree of personalized learning; and, 4) They want to open the door of the classroom to extended learning, online learning and advancing to higher levels of studies. Given the ability of the K12 system to respond to the needs of low-income and minority students and students with disabilities, the responsibility falls to districts and schools to build the capacity to help these students to become proficient and progress at a pace that prepares them for college within 13 years of education.

My fear, thus the cautionary words, is that policymakers will begin to expect to see cost reductions in K12. The K12 system has a very different funding environment. Tax policy and state budgets keep K12 costs at the same level or lower from year to year. Funds are distributed by formula, with districts and schools trying to do the best they can within those budgets. The emphasis in K12 is more on flexibility in deploying resources and will, I hope, generate conversations about cost-effectiveness rather than costs alone. Personally, I’m convinced that we will see much greater cost-effectiveness in K12 competency education, assuming principals have control over their budgets. However, we really don’t know what the cost is going to be of raising achievement for low-income students and special populations.  My personal hypothesis is that the social and educational capital of college-educated families makes a huge difference in how students learn and progress. Our challenge will be to figure out the most cost-effective methods to offer low-income students enriching learning experiences that produce the same value.

In closing, I am humbled to know that no matter what we may come up with during conference calls and convenings, it is the practitioners on the ground who are going to develop the powerful innovations. They are going to crack open our assumptions and cut away barriers. Programs will begin to challenge the institutional arrangements we’ve grown so familiar with and re-package services to do more than we’ve ever imagined. They already are.

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