How Competency-Based Are You?

February 14, 2018 by

A few weeks ago, someone approached me because the schools they were working with wanted to know if they were competency-based or not. This question seems to be popping up more frequently as competency-based education gains popularity. If the question is based on wanting to be part of the latest education innovation, it’s a problem. Simply declaring one’s school as competency-based doesn’t have much to do with anything if we aren’t actually providing a significantly better learning experience for students.

However, if that question is actually trying to ask Am I doing it right? then we really need as a field to be providing resources that allow districts, schools and teachers to self-assess and resources that allow them to see and engage in quality. In the meantime, I think a reframing of the question might be helpful: In what way are you competency-based and which ways aren’t you? To what degree has it been implemented across your school? And are students benefiting? And if not, why not – what’s missing or has to be done with greater quality?

When I visit schools, I try to get a picture of the ways they are implementing competency-based education and what they hope to do in the future. This gives me a sense of how they understand competency-based education as well as insights into their stages and strategies for implementation. Below is a short list of some of the things I’m asking about and looking for when I visit schools. Competency-based education is a comprehensive schoolwide or district-wide strategy and does require all of these pieces be put into place. But no one can put them in place all at once — which is why the question in what way are you competency-based can recognize the development and growth while also charting the course for next steps.

10 Questions for Site Visits to Schools Moving Toward Competency-Based Education

  1. Is the competency-based approach implemented schoolwide or districtwide with consistency in grading policies, moderated determination of proficiency, and collective responsibility for providing timely and differentiated support?
  2. Are students able to take advantage of transparent learning objectives with rubrics and examples of what it means to be proficient to bring evidence of learning from other classes and from the community?
  3. Is there a strong culture of learning and inclusiveness so that students and adults feel respected, that they belong, and safe to take risks in their learning?
  4. Are students coached in the lifelong learning skills (growth mindset, metacognition, self-regulation, and other social & emotional skills and habits of success) with opportunities to co-create their learning activities and take responsibility for their education? In other words, how are you helping them learn the skills for agency and independent learning?
  5. Do students know where they are in their learning trajectory, not just grade level standards, with grading systems that communicate student progress in reference to learning objectives rather than based on assignments and behaviors?
  6. Is there a commitment to mastery and advancing upon mastery with students being supported in building the knowledge and skills they may be missing, receiving timely and differentiated support, and being able to move beyond grade level?
  7. At the end of a semester or school year, do educators take responsibility to ensure that students who have not completed all the learning objectives have a plan for receiving additional support and providing continuity so that the next teacher will support the student to pick up where they left off?
  8. Do the systems of assessments offer extensive formative feedback, performance-based assessments and the opportunity to submit evidence of learning?
  9. Is there a shared pedagogical principle that is driven by learning sciences and equity and aligned with expectations that students will learn to apply knowledge and academic skills, i.e. build competency?
  10. Are educators supported in inquiry and personalized professional learning to improve instruction and assessment literacy in response to student learning?

A “yes” to any one of these questions is only the door to then ask other questions:

  • What is your stage of development and implementation: Are you in planning for change, designing your system in the stages of early implementation, or refining and adjusting to get the kinks out?
  • How are you supporting educators and administrators in this transition?
  • What are you learning about and how are these insights informing your next steps?

It’s unlikely that any one district or school will currently have every one of these pieces in place throughout their system and done in a robust, meaningful way. As I’ve said before, we are on a journey together.

What do you think? Are these the right questions to be asking? If not, which ones would you ask to find out if a school is on the path toward competency education?

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