Could Competency-Based Learning Be the Wave of the Future?


Peter thinks school is a drag. He is an avid reader, and he finds his Language Arts and History classes boring. In his mathematics class, he struggles to keep up with the concepts, and he often feels lost. He’s not alone – this is a common issue in schools. Finding the sweet spot where a student is both engaged and challenged is difficult, especially in a classroom full of individuals progressing at their own developmental rates.

Competency-based learning (CBL) allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. Rather than focusing on seat-time (attendance) or credits earned, CBL requires that students demonstrate mastery of skills and concepts (usually through approved assessments) in order to move through the curriculum at their own pace.

Most schools in America are organized according to the Carnegie unit, defined as 120 hours of class or contact time with an instructor. This standard was developed over 100 years ago, after industrialist Andrew Carnegie established the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Many educators question whether there might be a better measure of student achievement.

In 2005, New Hampshire abolished the Carnegie unit, allowing students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of material rather than as they complete credit hours. New Hampshire’s local districts and charter schools have had control over how they implement this policy, however, leading to a wide range of practices throughout the state.

At Milan Village Elementary School, for example, every student from second grade on is provided with a laptop, on which software and playlists can be used to individualize learning and tailor coursework. Courses are constructed around skills and competencies that students must master in order to move on.

Sanborn High School students receive feedback based on their mastery of competencies in each subject. Every student has the opportunity to retake exams without penalty in their efforts to achieve mastery, and the school has time set aside each day for teachers to work with students for remediation or acceleration. Teachers belong to interdepartmental professional learning communities focused on helping all students graduate.

The Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) exists completely online; students in grades 6 – 12 move through the courses at their own pace. Although some schools are still struggling to incorporate CBL successfully, a report by the Christensen Institute states, “The policies that support competency-based education in New Hampshire have created space for school models to innovate beyond century-old practices of measuring progress based on time instead of learning.”

The District of Columbia state Board of Education is launching a task force this month to examine alternatives to the traditional high school diploma route, including CBL, internships and service projects, and GED courses. Proponents say that more flexibility is needed for both students who move quickly through the curriculum and those who need more time in particular subject areas.

Competency Works, a nonprofit organization that shares original research, knowledge, and perspectives on CBL in K – 12 education, recently released a report on CBL in New England. The report outlines the steps the Rhode Island Board of Regents has taken since 2003 to advance CBL in the state. These steps include adding graduation requirements that state that “students must meet partial proficiency on the state assessment in reading and math” and changing the definition of a course so that districts were not bound by seat-time, for example.

One of the obstacles to incorporating CBL throughout our schools is the fact that we would need to agree on a definition of mastery for all grade levels and subject areas. In order for students to demonstrate competence, we will need to have assessments that accurately measure achievement and an agreed-upon threshold of proficiency (such as 75%, for example).

According to the Carnegie Foundation, “The U.S. education system needs more informative measures of student performance. Achieving this goal would require the development of rigorous standards, assessments, and accountability systems—difficult work, especially in the field of higher education, where educational aims are highly varied and faculty autonomy is deeply engrained.”

Interestingly, the higher education world is beginning to explore alternatives to the traditional route to a college degree. Pioneered by Western Governors University in 1996, more than 30 universities including the University of Maryland, Purdue University, and the University of Michigan have joined the Competency-Based Education Network, making a commitment to CBL programming. Participating institutions either offer degree programs with well-defined learning outcomes and rigorous assessment or are on their way to creating them.

Competency-based learning is a concept that has the potential to radically change our schools for the better. Children do not develop at the same rates or in the same ways – some walk sooner than others, some have strong vocabularies at very young ages, some learn better through hands-on experience while others prefer to work collaboratively. Allowing students to move through the curriculum at their own pace, while providing multiple opportunities for practice and mastery of skills and concepts, is an idea whose time has come.

This post was also published at GoLocalProv.

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