In search of on-ramps to competency-based learning


Jan 26, 2016

As more and more school systems across the country explore “going competency-based,” we need to be attentive to the processes that will actually allow such innovations to thrive. Current time- and age-based accountability measures have a stronghold on schools, even those trying to break away from the factory model of education. As a result, we would predict that time-based metrics and incentives could cannibalize many efforts to reinvent learning in a competency-based manner. School systems need to heed this warning and take pains to protect innovative competency-based approaches from the tug of status-quo pressures and performance measures.

Systems will likely get into trouble if they attempt to make just a few aspects of their models competency-based, while retaining an otherwise traditional structure. Indeed, a school district may spend scarce resources building out a list of desired “competencies” that it wants students to master, but lack the resources or capacity to rethink scheduling and assessment. As a result, these competencies will end up as an iteration or improvement on standards, rather than as a new approach to teaching and learning. Other systems might invest in competency-based grading reform but retain cohort-based course and semester schedules that keep students tied to lock-step progressions. As a result, report cards may more accurately reflect what students actually know, but classroom models will be no better suited to filling in gaps reflected in those grades. In other words, efforts to transform to a competency-based system risk ending up as tweaks on the traditional factory-based approach to teaching and learning, rather than as whole-school redesign.

These challenges are highly predictable if you consider the trajectory that many innovations take. Oftentimes school systems that think they are investing in a wholly new education model are actually investing in sustaining innovations—that is, innovations that improve against existing performance metrics. There is nothing wrong with sustaining innovations—oftentimes these innovations delight customers with better features or functionalities. But sustaining innovations reinforce existing performance metrics rather than reinventing them.

By and large, school systems today remain beholden to traditional accountability and teacher evaluation performance metrics that are benchmarked against a time-based, singular, summative exam. As a result, even with the best of intentions to re-orient around competency-based metrics, like individual student mastery or rate over learning (calculated by individual mastery over individual pace), schools will tend to measure their reform efforts according to traditional time-based metrics of success.

How, then, can schools disrupt the traditional mold if they must remain accountable to that mold? According to our research, systems need to nurture disruptive efforts with new performance metrics by granting these efforts autonomy beyond the reach of traditional metrics and accountability. Otherwise, schools will find themselves innovating on top of their existing model—perhaps making that existing instructional model more efficient or differentiated, but not wholly competency-based.

Carving out autonomy for competency-based models to thrive can take various forms. Here are four trends worth watching that have the potential to allow new models to take root:

Afterschool programs
A recent American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) publication looked at the overlap of afterschool programs and competency-based learning models. The authors posit that afterschool programs are increasingly providing academically enriching experiences that could—in a well-run competency-based model—count for credit in school. Some of the most promising efforts cited in the report, such as Chicago’s After School Matters program, allow for out-of-school learning experiences that both deliver real-world training and show measurable impact on non-cognitive skills. Although the authors call for better linking of in-school and out-of-school competency-based experiences, the more intriguing take away from the report may be that afterschool programs can offer fertile ground for honing competency-based approaches beyond the traditional system.

Supplemental online courses
A la carte online courses can allow students to move at a flexible or individual pace. In a number of states, online course providers can now obtain seat-time waivers to avoid keeping students “on the clock.” As such, online courses offer a built-in flexibility around pacing that is trickier to pull off in traditional face-to-face cohort models. It’s worth noting that some online courses are more competency-based than others. For example, New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) not only bundles its content by competencies (rather than courses), but also receives funding based on mastery rather than time. But districts themselves are also increasingly creating their own district-run online courses. This approach can in turn allow current teachers and administrators to design competency-based modules and courses that take advantage of flexibilities and customization that online learning offers.

Curriculum redesign
Perhaps the most common approach I’m hearing from districts is to take a year or two to fully redesign their school model and curriculum with competency-based approaches in mind. To do this well, systems will need to take a “sandbox” approach to rethinking curriculum—that is, allow an autonomous team from the district to rethink a new curriculum from scratch that is not beholden to existing models, scope and sequence, or publisher content. For example, Fraser Public Schools in Michigan hired six of its teachers to embark on a yearlong design process. Importantly, the teachers leading the curriculum redesign are freed from the traditional constraints of age-, grade-, and accountability-based limitations. The success of such efforts, of course, will depend on the systems’ ability to implement that new curriculum with fidelity, perhaps first in untested subject areas, so that the model can thrive.

Alternative high schools
As I’ve noted before, alternative high schools, or dropout-recovery programs, are well suited to forging competency-based approaches; by design, such programs take on students with varying credit and mastery levels. Alternative high schools must meet students where they’re at and graduate them on a flexible basis. This charge inherently puts them in a more promising position to optimize for competency-based performance metrics, unlike traditional schools that by design standardize learning experiences by age- and grade-level, rather than by mastery.

All four of these examples illustrate how school systems might carve out autonomy as a critical first step to building competency-based models. (It bears noting that charter schools are not on this list—indeed, charter schools remain locked into existing accountability pressures and arguably these pressures are even more acute in some states where poor performance can lead authorizers to not renew a charter.) Without sufficient autonomy to develop, reforms we call competency-based risk falling into step with our well-established time-based designs.

Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.

  • Ben Malczyk

    Terrific post Julia.
    Any ideas for colleges to develop such a program outside of the college/university system? I know Southern New Hampshire set up either their online programs or College for America with its own separate systems. I’m curious if there are other viable options for higher ed.