It’s Time for Mid-Course Corrections in K-12 Competency-Based Education

September 15, 2015 by

RocketOur reflection on how the field of competency-based education is developing has resulted in a number of emails raising other concerns and opportunities. It’s clear to me that there are at least four issues that need more attention and discussion…and likely mid-course corrections if we are going to get this right.

Failure is Not an Option: When Susan Patrick and I wrote the scan of competency-based education, we had used the title Failure is Not an Option to capture the spirit of competency education. That’s right, equity was at the very heart of competency education, where rather than have an open system in which students can be passed on with Cs and Ds (or even drop out before graduating), we would develop a closed system in which the system itself changes when students aren’t learning. However, a very silly organization that had trademarked the phrase Failure is not an Option sicced their lawyers on us, and we didn’t want to boogie with such a goofy gang of folks (the phrase has been used for a book about Apollo 13). So we used Success is the Only Option instead, but it’s just not as effective a phrase to get the big idea of what competency education really is. The result is that most conversations are about pace and flexibility rather than how we need to redesign the infrastructure and schools so that failure really and truly isn’t an option.

Mid-Course Correction: Start the conversation with what it will take for us to have every low-income student, every student with a disability, every child regardless of the color of their skin, and every student learning English for the first time learn, thrive, and soar. Pace and flexibility will come naturally out of that conversation. But if you start with flexible pace first, you miss the big idea of what competency education is all about.

Personalization, Agency and Empowerment: We all talk about personalization and the many ways to personalize education (through relationships, learner profiles, capstone and other co-designed projects, voice, choice, all the flexibility provided by online learning, and of course differentiating instruction to respond to where students are in their learning). However, we aren’t spending enough time talking about the other side of the coin – student agency.

I am just starting to understand the awesome, jaw-dropping power of when we integrate student agency into the core of our education system and the systemic implications. If you build a system that is going to be personalized then you have to intentionally build student agency (i.e., help students develop the habits of learning that allow them to navigate their education) into the core of the operations. Otherwise, teachers are left in the position of spending their time in the classroom directing students rather than the much more important jobs of facilitating deeper learning and providing additional instructional support if students are stuck.

The systemic implications of building student agency are far-reaching. If students are going to have agency, then teachers need to be more empowered because you can’t teach the habits of learning in a compliance culture. If teachers are empowered, then so must be principals. You get it – the system has to be built with an understanding that learning is messy and that our educators need robust systems of support so they have access to professional knowledge that enables them to make critical decisions about student learning each day.

Mid-Course Correction: Before you even start to identify which academic competencies and standards students will be expected to learn, take the time to talk about two things. First, really explore what student agency is and the habits students need to become independent learners by the time they graduate, as well as the developmental steps they will take through childhood and adolescence. Second, explore the difference of a compliance culture and an empowered one, and what it will mean for educators, principals, and district staff.

New Values and New Designs: Paul Leather, Deputy Commissioner of Education in New Hampshire, warns us that we are at risk of once again developing a top-down, over-built system that would “limit us rather than set us (and our children) free of unnecessary bureaucratic structures.” In essence, if we spend too much time trying to design the policy infrastructure from the top, we are going to “get out of one box and move into another.” I agree wholeheartedly with Paul.

I think this problem of moving from bureaucratic box to bureaucratic box comes when we approach competency education solely as a technical reform. However, it really and truly is a paradigm shift with an entirely different set of values and assumptions driving it. Whereas the traditional model values efficiency above all, assumes a fixed mindset, is organized so educators will teach curriculum with students as passive consumers, and relies on the assumption that students require an education that is equal to their place in society, competency-based education values effectiveness in helping all students to learn, is based on a growth mindset, sees the job of educators to teach children, and views students as active and empowered learners ready to shape their lives.

Thus, districts and schools need to use processes in their conversion to competency education that help them shake out the old values and assumptions and embrace the new. From what I can tell, this primarily takes place in the Ramping Up stage, in which there is inquiry, reflection through reading books that help to build an understanding of the new values, and a powerful shift from seeing accountability as something that is driven from higher levels of government to one that is embedded within the relationships between educators, students, and families.

The big challenge, of course, is for state policymakers (leaders and staff) whose roles are changing. They can’t make those changes without the help of district and school leaders. We need enough districts and schools to be in position to co-design the new policy infrastructure along with state leadership. This is an awkward situation for sure but not impossible to orchestrate. It requires opening up space for innovation – and I mean a lot of it – so districts have the opportunity to fully convert as they figure out what works as a system and so new schools can innovate. In this way, we can really understand what a personalized, competency-based, blended school can do to get substantially greater levels of learning (i.e., marginal gains are a sign that we aren’t getting it right yet). Then state policymakers, district leaders, and school leaders can work together to begin to co-design the infrastructure.

Mid-Course Correction for State Leaders and Staff: If you are a state leader and you find yourself in the room talking with other state staff and leaders about policy and regulations without any district or school personnel, stop! Your job has changed. Instead of figuring out the policies, you need to change the process by which you engage district and educators in co-designing the policy infrastructure, pilots, or however else you are advancing competency education.

Mid-Course Correction for District and School Leaders: Take the time, even if it is more than a year, to fully ramp up. If you’ve started down the path of designing the infrastructure for learning without having replaced the values driving your work, then use the design process itself to consider options based on different values and assumptions.

It’s All Five Elements. Not Four, Not Three. It’s All Five: When iNACOL and CCSSO held the Competency-Based Learning Summit in 2011, we agreed upon a five part working definition of competency education. In hindsight, I wish we had spent more time on clarifying the goal of competency-based education to be ensuring that all students are learning every step of the way.

No matter, the five elements are powerful in testing out ideas at the policy, district, school, and classroom levels. However, it’s important to remember that competency-based education is at minimum a school-wide structure, although we think you will see substantially more improvements when designed system-wide at the district level, as you will be able to respond to students who are ready to learn at much higher grade levels as well as develop strategies to re-engage students who left school for one reason or another before getting their diplomas.

However, in visiting districts across the country, I’m realizing that districts and schools are putting some elements in place but not pushing themselves to put all the elements into place. They simply are not getting all the benefits of competency education.

Mid-Course Correction: Take the time to reflect on the changes you have made to date using the working definition as your rubric. To what degree have you implemented the ideas and where have you not? Take the time to identify why you aren’t making the changes – it’s likely an adult issue rather than what we know is best for kids.

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