Unpacking competency recovery
In New Hampshire—the only state thus far to eliminate the Carnegie Unit and mandate competency-based education statewide—high schools are embracing competency recovery. Competency recovery is, as you might expect, a close cousin of credit recovery. The difference? Schools in New Hampshire either enumerate competencies themselves or adopt competencies that the New Hampshire Department of Education has created. Each academic course thus includes a number of competencies that students must achieve in order to be considered competent and move forward. At the end of a course, if a student has failed to master a discrete competency or set of competencies, she may have the chance to do smaller units of coursework—often online—to fill in these gaps. If she successfully completes these modules, she can still pass the class.
By offering competency recovery, schools are acknowledging that within a given course, a student may have nailed some competencies and missed others. Consider the alternative: traditional grading systems, which average performance over the entire semester, do little to reveal these different levels of mastery in discrete areas. In essence, then, competency recovery offers a more efficient and personalized means of catching up, rather than retaking a course in its entirety. Ensuring that students have mastered each competency also prevents students from completing courses by leveraging a few strengths or extra credit opportunities and then moving on despite gaps in their knowledge.
A number of schools in New Hampshire use Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACs) or other online modules to deliver this end-of-the course catch-up. VLACs modules are aligned to the New Hampshire state competencies. Here’s one example of a New Hampshire high school’s competency-recovery policy, which outlines the process by which a student and teacher will meet to determine what gaps she needs to address and how she can use online coursework to get there.
In a truly competency-based system, students progress at their own pace and move forward only once they’ve demonstrated that they can acquire, make meaning of, and also transfer a given set of content and skills. At first blush, then, the term “competency recovery” reeks of irony. If a student has to “recover” competencies, he has presumably moved through material too quickly and has ended up with the very gaps that the system is designed to prevent. In a fully competency-based system, “falling behind” is a moot concept: if students are truly self-paced, we no longer deem students “behind” much less “ahead.” (Although most systems do set a minimum pace against which to benchmark student progress). As one long-time competency-based school, Boston Day and Evening Academy, puts it, at any point in time students are either “competent” or “not yet [competent].” Competency, thus, is not something to be recovered, but to eventually attain, at each student’s individual pace.
The other irony is that the term clearly derives from credit recovery. Credit recovery has been an essential tenet of efforts to improve high school persistence and graduation. But the very need to offer these supplemental courses during summers or afterschool is a byproduct of our time-based systems; when students progress based on time, regardless of learning, some stand to fall so far behind in a course that they have to retake it in order to stay on track to graduate.
Semantics aside, however, I don’t think we should dismiss competency recovery as a traditional notion masquerading as something novel. In some ways, competency- recovery programs are an interim solution serving a system in transition. They reflect where New Hampshire currently sits in the dramatic but gradual shift that is upending the metric that education has been tethered to for over a century: time. Of course, much of this turns on how and to what degree schools are assessing students’ progress against competencies. Competency recovery may be one step forward for systems aiming to provide more just-in-time support based on formative assessments throughout a course, rather than just the end-of-the-semester supports when summative assessments reveal bigger gaps. Alternatively, competency recovery may be a practical reality we should accept in any competency-based system; a backstop solution when just-in-time supports are either too resource-intensive or still fail to spur student progress because of attendance issues or other individual obstacles that students may face.
Competency-recovery programs also reveal a key market in which competency-based education technologies can gain a foothold. Its predecessor, credit recovery, was one area of nonconsumption where tech companies like PLATO and Aventa Learning made disruptive plays over the past decade. Competency recovery appears to represent a second wave of this disruption, like unit recovery, in which school competency-based systems are looking for more particular, competency-based modular recovery solutions that allow students to catch up based on areas they’ve struggled, rather than entire courses. Being able to provide students with these more targeted supports stands to save students time and save schools money. Over time, these technologies may improve to become even better suited to serving different students’ needs throughout their learning process, not just at the “end” of a unit or course. This has implications for learning models beyond just the fully competency-based systems that New Hampshire has boldly mandated.
When I first heard about competency recovery, it sounded like the trappings of time-based education lingering in competency-based schools. But I think it’s more than just a vestige of the traditional system; like credit recovery did a decade ago, this may well represent a new growth market, and a key lever toward developing more personalized education technologies for students.