Should Every Student Be in A Competency-Based System?

April 22, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-04-19 at 11.52.39 AMIn a discussion with Lillian Pace from KnowledgeWorks this morning, the fascinating question of whether every student should be in a competency-based system  or whether it should be an option for students came up.

This led to a discussion of whether competency education is a specific school design, instructional model or a systemic framework.  In a policy environment that encourages choice and personalization, we of course don’t want to establish one-size fits all school designs or instructional approaches. (And I certainly don’t think competency education is a school model or instructional approach). However, as a systemic framework, is competency education something we want for everyone?

The only way I know to answer this question is to walk through it step by step:

1) Should a student be provided with education that responds to where they are in their learning progression?

It’s the Goldilocks answer.  If the curriculum is too easy or too hard, frustration, boredom and disengagement occur. We want the curriculum to be “just right” – at and above the level where students are in their learning progression so they are challenged.  The zone of proximal development, if you will.

2) Should students progress upon mastery? There are always two parts to this question so let’s take them step by step:

a. Should students progress to more advanced curriculum and courses without being proficient in earlier material?  The answer is generally no, although, most likely, some gaps can be managed through thoughtful scaffolding.  It’s likely that some standards are more important than others to more advanced work. It means offering more intensive opportunities for strengthening skills on specific areas. It may mean more time.

This doesn’t mean retention – that’s a total waste of money and doesn’t even promise success if students don’t get the help they need.  What it does mean is that when students are “stuck” and not reaching proficiency they have a chance to keep working on it. It means extra help, extra time, and reassessment to ensure they really did “get it”.  This one has big implications for how we design policies, systems, and schools.

b. Should students, once they reach proficiency, be able to advance? Yes they should have the option but it’s not a requirement.  Let’s not be linear. Students may want to use their time to explore a topic or extracurricular activity, work on an area where they are weaker, focus on a topic for which they have a passion, or advance to the next curricular level.

3)  Should students be expected to apply what they are learning?  General consensus these days is yes.  This, more than anything, has implications for how we design schools, instruction and assessment systems.  It’s not just related to competency education – it’s the big shift in education policy. Competency education simply integrates it into the core framework.

4) Should students know what is expected of them and what “good enough” or proficient means?  Competency education assumes that students know the competencies, learning targets and the rubrics whether in 1st grade or 12th.  Teachers don’t like the “black box” of value added systems and students don’t like the “black box” of grading.  It’s especially important for students who are surpassing their parents’ educational levels to have a sense of what good enough looks like. Even more important is to know what excelling means and looks like. This is one of the more undiscussed, and probably more powerful elements, of competency education. Do you want your children in a school where they don’t know what they are trying to learn or what “good” looks like?  What is the value of keeping it a secret?

[Notice I didn’t even mention the issue of pace. I think the issue of self-paced, differentiated pace, and teacher-pace is taking on way too much attention and isn’t even a major issue.  Of course there is a pace that is expected to get kids from knowing their colors to getting a 21 or better on the ACT, one of the indicators of college-readiness.  It’s really not the pace that should vary but the intensity of support services. If anything, pace needs to more rapid for those students who are behind or with gaps. Building time into the daily, weekly, monthly and annual calendar for students to get intensive support services is what this is all about. ]

So…Does this mean that all students will benefit from schools operating within a competency-based system? Are there benefits from the current system that we lose when transitioning to competency education? Are there disadvantages to switching to competency education (other than it is tough for adults and organizations to change)?  Are there students who will learn more in a time-based, A-F grading system than in a competency-based one?

I don’t know if any of us really know the answers to these questions beyond what the research on learning can tell us.  We’ll know even more because we are on the brink of enormous new insights as research in the learning sciences expands. What we all do know is that poor implementation yields poor results. So how does a school and district know that they are making smart design choices all along the way to make sure every student is benefiting from competency education?  That’s a topic for another day.

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