As more and more school systems across the country explore competency-based education (CBE), 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 thwart 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.
How can schools disrupt the traditional mold if they must remain accountable to that mold? According to our research, systems can successfully nurture disruptive efforts, like CBE, with new performance metrics by establishing 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 five trends that have the potential to allow new models to take root:
1. Well-designed state pilots
Effective state policies should offer coherent visions of the models that schools might adopt, new accountability structures to match those models, and a commitment to providing the tools (i.e. digital learning) to schools to pursue various models, all of which might qualify as competency-based. If policymakers fail to treat competency-based education as a system-wide reform, the movement risks going the way of many education fads that never changed the lives of real students in real classrooms. States also need to provide supports to help districts and schools implement and design programs and competencies that meet their students’ needs.
2. Afterschool programs
An 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.
3. 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 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.
4. 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 year-long 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.
5. 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 five 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.