Educators all over the world are thinking creatively about ways to transform the traditional education system into an experience that will propel students forward into the world ready to take on its complex challenges. Competency-based education has piqued the interest of many communities because of its promise to make learning a more personal experience for students. In a competency-based model, children move through school based on their ability to demonstrate proficiency in skills and content, not by how many hours they spent sitting in class.
Teachers have long faced the difficult task of designing lessons for a group of students who are not all alike. Students come to school with different exposure to academic opportunities, disparate lived experiences, and unique interests and passions. For decades teachers have tried to impart a set curriculum in a limited amount of time to this heterogeneous group of students. And regardless of whether all students grasped the concepts and skills, for the most part students moved forward with their age cohort to the next grade.
Now some are questioning this time-based approach to learning. They wonder what sitting in a classroom for a predetermined number of instructional hours says about what students know and can do. They argue some students are ready for more challenges, while others need more support. They say it’s unfair to shepherd everyone along at the same pace. Wouldn’t it make more sense if everyone could move at their own pace, investigate their unique interests and demonstrate their knowledge in the ways that are most meaningful to them? In its purest form, that’s what proponents of competency-based education want to see.
Several states in New England have passed legislation making it easier for schools to adopt competency-based systems, and online platforms like Summit Learning have spread a version of the idea to schools around the country. For many parents and educators it’s exciting to think that each student could move at their own pace through the curriculum with guidance and support from teachers. However, the discussion around competency-based education raises big questions about how teachers manage classrooms filled with learners at different stages of learning, the potential drawbacks to such a system, and whether it may inadvertently perpetuate inequality.
In the rush to fix a problem, it’s easy to forget the history behind the system we have. The Carnegie Unit, also known as the credit hour, was a grassroots solution to unreliable standards for college admissions educators faced in the late 19th century based on in-person inspections and exams. That system didn’t scale and it offered a limited curriculum. In an effort to open up various pathways to and through college, educators developed the idea of the credit hour, so that different courses that met an agreed-upon number of credit hours would be considered roughly equivalent by colleges.