Why Competency-Based Education Is Exciting And Where It May Stumble

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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.

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The current system based on the Carnegie Unit has proven durable  in part because it has allowed an eclectic mix of institutions to work together. No two classrooms are exactly alike, but the credit hour allows students to be considered equally prepared.

“If you think of it as a currency, then currencies are defined by the institutions or collective space in which you can use that currency and it’s honored at face value,” said Ethan Hutt, assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership at the University of Maryland-College Park.

And, Hutt maintains, the current system puts significant trust in educator professionalism. The whole system is based on the fact that a student sitting in a U.S. history class in Maryland is learning roughly the same things as a student in California. Colleges are trusting high school teachers to do a good job. That trust is built into many public universities, where the top high school graduates may be guaranteed admission to one of the state’s colleges and into less-selective colleges where a high school diploma serves as the basis for admission.

That trust also allows students to move and change schools without losing credit for work they’ve completed. Hutt worries that while it’s a known fact that all U.S. history classes are not created equally, many competency-based systems are developed so locally that it would be difficult for another district or state to recognize the learning a student has done.

“Often when people talk about competency-based education, they don't really think about who it is that’s going to accept this measure, this certification,” Hutt said.

He's concerned that in an effort to make sure students have key skills, educators pursuing competency-based models will end up cut off from the larger system. In order to validate the learning for a wider audience, the same educators who hope to create a more open-ended system could end up relying on standardized tests to demonstrate that learning has happened.

And, “there’s a small concern that if you go to a competency-based system that’s not validated by standardized tests, people may rely strictly on school reputation when recognizing these competencies -- a decision with obvious equity implications," Hutt said. He worries that without addressing the other structural inequalities in the system, competency-based education will be yet another “innovation” that gives more affluent students a leg up.

Despite the practical concerns with how competency-based reforms are implemented, and their effect on equity, there are already schools and districts tackling these issues. In New Hampshire, some schools have used recent legislation as an opportunity to rethink what schools look like, while others have used it as an opening to make other instructional shifts. And in Maine, some of the challenges Hutt raises have led to pushback from teachers and parents.

MIT professor Justin Reich is interested in the conversation around competency-based education because it touches on some fundamental problems in the system right now. He’s not convinced competency-based systems will be the solution for everyone, but he has seen positives come out of communities who are trying to implement it.

“It forces or compels people to think really carefully about what it is we want students to know, to do, to believe, and to have conversations that are not just within one person’s classroom or department, but across departments, “ Reich said. “They’re thinking really carefully about what it looks like for students to be on a trajectory.”

That kind of coherence is key to innovative change, Reich said. And often it's the incremental changes, not the huge innovations, that ultimately transform systems. So while competency-based education in its most radical form may not end up being a viable solution for many schools, elements of the reform may make a big difference for educators and students where these conversations are happening.

At competency-based schools Reich has visited, school is still recognizable to him. The differences are more subtle; teaches are on the same page about what students need to know and be able to do at each stage of their learning. Students know what the expectations are, and there’s a clear system to track students through their progression.

“It’s not a total transformation where in the same room there’s a kid working on calculus and another kid just getting started on something else,” Reich said.

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Reich and his colleagues will be exploring the intricacies of competency-based education in a free online course offered by EdX beginning Jan. 31, 2019. Participants will hear from experts and on-the-ground practitioners about the positive and negatives of competency-based models. Reich hopes teachers, district leaders, school board members, parents and community members will participate in the six-week course so they can go back to their communities and start informed conversations about the best way forward in their unique contexts.

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