What Do We Mean by Completion?

June 24, 2014 by

cover of A framework for selecting quality course providersI always save an hour or two on Friday afternoons to read about things I don’t know much about. It’s a practice I started years ago as program director at Greater Boston Rehabilitation Services as I needed to be comfortable talking about issues through a broad spectrum of perspectives. There was always more to be learned. In fact, it was where I was first came upon the work of Peter Senghe and the concept of personal mastery.

Increasingly, I find myself reading anything and everything about education through the lens of competency education. What would be the implications if systems were competency-based? How might we think about these issues if we consistently placed  student agency, student learning, pace and progress front and center to all decisions?

Last week I dived into A Framework for Selecting Quality Course Providers at Competitive Prices from Digital Learning Now. State contracting for online courses is a topic I know nothing about but care about deeply, as it is imperative that students in rural communities, alternative schools or any small school have access to a much wider set of courses,  especially where there is a dearth of teachers (Advanced Placement physics, for example). It is also going to be an essential capacity if schools are going to lift the ceiling and let kids fly beyond their grade level.

As the paper was so accessible, the competency education lens flipped on immediately as I read about how states can structure a mix of base pay and incentive pay based upon completion. Completion? How exactly are states defining completion? In a competency-based state or district, completion with a C or D, i.e. with gaps in knowledge, isn’t acceptable. In competency education, completion equals proficiency. Will this mean that states will create statewide understanding of what completion means in terms of proficiency at a specific depth of knowledge in order to clarify contracts with online providers? (See the discussion in Idaho about whether states or districts should be determining what mastery is.)  This could be an important state level function that is done in partnership with districts so that a shared understanding of proficiency/completion is created.

The other issue that popped out is one now being discussed by charter authorizers, alternative schools and online schools:  How do we respond to the needs of students with substantial gaps in their prerequisite knowledge for a course? In order to accelerate learning (and credit accumulation), we are going to turn to boosting skills and scaffolding as much as possible within a course. Sometimes it may be appropriate to use a readiness criteria, which will mean students will have to focus on lower level skills before enrolling in a course.  The challenge is to ensure that the system has the right incentive/disincentive structure to assure that online courses and teachers are best prepared to help students with gaps, not simply deliver the curriculum of the course. Essentially, some students are going to be required to learn more in order to get to completion.

I’m still looking for research on the dynamics of the grace period that is offered in online programs, in which students may decide to not take a course and teachers may discuss their concerns with students who they believe may not have adequate skills for the course. Who drops out during the grace period and why? Are there patterns here that need to be considered in terms of equity? Are online programs building the capacity to help students who have farther to go to reach completion or using the grace period as a way to manage readiness.

I am not holding online schools to a different standard. Our F2F schools are equally challenged by the enormous number of students who enter high school with middle or elementary school skill sets. The dynamics are simply different when students and teachers are in a building together. Students having trouble accessing the curriculum will likely disengage, perhaps skipping class, perhaps demonstrating frustration, which may kick in punitive disciplinary policies (although that is no longer accepted by policy, so hopefully “behavioral” issues will trigger extra help and support in the future). Both online and F2F schools are challenged by how to respond to the needs of students who have to backtrack to move forward.  

 Both online and F2F schools are challenged by how to respond to the needs of students who have to backtrack to move forward.

Digital Learning Now’s paper captures this issue by stating in the concluding section that each state will need to determine “how to assess a provider’s impact on student learning.” This is an important issue and one we need to figure out as quickly as possible, otherwise we may be left with students struggling in courses without adequate help, providers frustrated with inadequate pay for their effort to move students along a much broader trajectory, and states troubled with issues of equity.

I also began to wonder reading this paper: Could pay reflect the portion of a course students completed? If courses have specific standards embedded in them and a student is proficient in 75% of them, could the provider receive 75% of the payment? And what type of gaming might occur in that scenario, as we know that not all standards are equal in weight of importance and complexity. If we flip this over, we might think about another level of decentralization as we consider “fee for competency or standard.” New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy is able to enroll students for the specific competencies they are missing and are moving towards structuring their system on competencies, not courses.

Finally, I wondered how the costs vary for the higher levels of learning as compared to helping students with recall and comprehension. Might states think about structuring contracts that assume students will be getting to levels of proficiency at the level of analysis (Level 3 in Webb’s, Level  3 and 4 in Bloom’s) and providing a bonus for students who are able to take what they learned to the higher levels of knowledge utilization, evaluating and creating?

First things first. Let’s make sure that completion actually stops our cycle of under-learning by ensuring it has more meaning than passing kids on with big gaps in knowledge.

Thanks to Digital Learning Now for a finely crafted paper that allowed me to understand the current issues and go beyond.

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