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Ensuring the Going is Good

February 26, 2013 by

The recent surge in interest regarding competency-based approaches in education — the idea that students advance by demonstrating mastery — has revealed predictable challenges. As with the implementation of any innovative idea, when things get going, it’s important to ensure that the going is good.

Why is this new approach so promising? Competency education is connected to the core concept that academic advancement should be based on firm footing. In our current education system, we move students ahead according to age, and determine success or failure by administering an assortment of high-stakes standardized tests. This process contradicts eons of scientific research that shows people grow, mature and learn at different rates, and best demonstrate their learning in complex ways that most current assessment regimens do not support.

In the real world, do our doctors treat two patients with similar symptoms in the same way? Of course not. A medical visit involves a detailed personal history and an examination to assess the underlying conditions. Treatment is often customized and tailored to each individual’s unique needs and risk factors. We would think it absurd for a doctor to render a universal diagnosis and allocate the same resources to treat each patient. The same logic should hold true for our schools.

To continue the medical analogy, offering the same ‘treatment’ to learners in our school system not only jeopardizes their individual health, but also the health of our society. We all suffer from a shortsighted approach to nurturing the next generation of potential leaders — practically, morally, and economically.

Practically, we pay later by inadequately preparing learners to succeed beyond high school. Time and time again, we are surprised to learn that an entire academic career was built on a house of sand. It is hard to become competent in important skills, such as scientific analytics or deep math, if one is unable to master the fundamentals of reading.

Morally, how can we prepare some learners to succeed and not others? Tackling our vast disparities in readiness requires differentiated approaches to help less advantaged learners. Now more than ever, that means we need to think about the people who have had the hardest time. The stakes are simply too high to continue with business as usual — for our communities and for our nation.

Economically, the implementation of high quality competency approaches could produce significant cost savings in the (not too) long-term. Why wouldn’t we invest up front in effective approaches that enable all learners to succeed at higher levels and contribute to economic growth in greater numbers?

One offshoot of this logic is the oversimplified notion that we can lower costs by getting more advanced learners out of high school more quickly. But students don’t fit into the same economic frame as products and economies of scale. People are too complex, individual needs and skills are too diverse, and socioeconomic variables are too vast to generalize. Even if we are able to accelerate learning, our goal as a society must be to ensure that more learners reach a higher level of achievement. The cost savings won’t show up as a line item in a budget, but rather as a productive workforce and a richer democracy. This means reinvesting savings from those who move faster to support those who need more help to move ahead.

The districts, schools and educators that are pioneering competency-education are predictably facing some growing pains. We don’t yet have the advantage of large-scale systems that can be tailored to assess and monitor student progress. And competency-based environments require criteria about what constitutes mastery and when students are ready to advance to the next level.

As we continue to develop new approaches, our biggest challenge is maintaining a laser-like focus on the end game: increasing success equitably among all learners, especially and essentially those who are underserved in our current system. We must take care not to follow attractive lures such as modest cost savings in the near term that will cost us dearly in the near future — practically, morally, and economically.

Nicholas C. Donohue is the President and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation in Quincy, Massachusetts. You can follow @NickDonohueNMEF on Twitter.

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