Two Things That Will Destroy a Competency Based Initiative

Guest Blogger David Cook is Director of Innovation and Partner Engagement at the Kentucky Department of Education.

One of the most exciting movements in education today is the competency based learning movement.  The term “competency based learning” is sometimes interchanged with mastery based learning or proficiency based learning.   I’ll begin with a definition that was developed by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (INACOL):

A competency based system of learning uses flexible methods of teaching that enable students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, pace or place of learning. Performance-based learning is an alternate term for the same concept. A competency-based system has several attributes:

  • Students advance upon mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

All across this country and in countries across the globe, competency based learning is taking place.  States are beginning to set policy to allow it to happen, and schools and school districts with progressive leadership are embracing systems that incorporate the definition above.

There are two significant pieces to sustaining and scaling a successful competency based system that we must get right from the beginning or we won’t get the results we desire.

Competency Based Instruction Means Competency Based Assessment/Accountability

Eternal_clockIn order for a competency based system to work, the assessment and accountability structures that are in place for the schools/districts implementing the system must also be competency based.  A traditional time based summative assessment/accountability model like the ones in use in most states won’t allow for the mastery based aspects of a competency based learning system.

It’s simple: if children don’t learn at the same pace, how can we assess them at the same pace.  It is imperative that we create the assessment/accountability model first and then implement the competency based instruction.  We will not get universal buy in from teachers and administrators until this step is completed.  The majority of teachers won’t take the risk of teaching in a competency based environment if they know they are still being held accountable to a time based assessment/accountability system.

Our assessment/accountability models must, at a minimum, do two things:

1)      Allow for multiple methods of assessment (e.g. traditional summative, performance tasks, project based learning) to “count” as evidence of learning

2)      The assessment/accountability system must be allowed to be delivered “at the point of readiness”.  Our current systems actually create artificial achievement gaps by forcing all children to be assessed at the same time and in the same way.

Additional Competencies Must Be Developed and Reported at the Local Level

 One of the key aspects of competency based systems is that they incorporate other competencies we desire students to master.  These “competencies” are sometimes referred to as skills and/or dispositions and they refer to key understanding that students need to be able to apply to be successful in their lives.  Some of these competencies cross all “core academic areas” and some may not be skills tied to any core academic area.  The main point is that these competencies should primarily be competencies that each local jurisdiction believes to be important knowledge they want their students to graduate with.  Those local jurisdictions should determine those competencies and design ways to measure them and report them to local interested stakeholders.  While I believe the state should have a role in creating tools to set criteria for creating quality competencies, trying to bring them to the state level to measure and report them is huge mistake number two.

Web-Analytics-to-Measure-Your-Content-Marketing-ProgressThe first response of most state education agencies is to demand that the state create the competencies and then assess them.  It’s a management and reporting thing.  If something is being assessed, then we should collect it at the state and put a number on it.  No, no, no!!  If you must report on these “other competencies”, create a section of the state report card for local competencies and let the districts report them.  They won’t be the same across the state and they shouldn’t be.

If the state controls these other competencies and pushes those into accountability, then in five years teachers will be teaching only those competencies and we will have the same problems we have with current accountability models.   In the end, today’s accountability structures don’t actually tell us that much about what learning is taking place.

So if you are a state or local education system leader, don’t just put all your energy into developing the instructional program for competency based learning.  Take the much needed time to ensure accountability aligns to your competency based learning program and don’t let competency based learning become just another system pushed into the limited capabilities of high stakes accountability.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ~Alvin Toffler

Follow David on Twitter at @DavidNeilCook

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