Illuminating federal barriers to competency-based education

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Feb 4, 2014

A new paper out this week titled, A K-12 Federal Policy Framework for Competency Education, helps to highlight how federal education law stymies competency-based learning. Authors Maria Worthen (iNACOL) and Lillian Pace (KnowledgeWorks) do a stellar job laying out the obstacles that federal policies currently pose to competency-based models, how these policies could be improved upon, as well as what states can do in the meantime.

This is a must-read for anyone who is studying, implementing, or just considering competency-based education models. I find that when I read about or try to describe the upside of competency-based approaches, they are virtually impossible to argue against in theory: of course we should measure learning in mastery not minutes! Why would we educate students in any other way? But as enthusiasm for competency-based education grows nationally, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that in practice “time” is not just an isolated variable that you can swap out for “competency-based” progression. In fact, working through what it means to implement competency-based education forces us to confront deeply embedded concepts about age, grade levels, and how to hold schools accountable for educating all students. As I’ve written in the past, these time-based norms stand to slow implementation efforts within schools and districts. Pace and Worthen’s paper is a good reminder that time is likewise deeply embedded in the fabric of federal education policy and practice.

A calendar-driven mentality guides a number of central federal requirements that schools and states must meet. Annual federal high-stakes exams get flack for a variety of reasons but vitally to competency-based education, this testing regime means that schools are only held accountable for student performance once a year rather than being continuously assessed. Moreover, feedback loops on such assessments are so attenuated that schools can hardly act on data until it’s too late. Relatedly, because no out-of-grade testing is allowed, federal accountability structures do away with the possibility of on-demand testing. On-demand tests would allow students to take exams when they are ready to demonstrate mastery, rather than on a single pre-determined calendar date that is chosen regardless of whether students are far ahead of or lag behind the material being assessed.

Data systems and integrated technology solutions to support competency-based models are also few and far between, and federal policies aren’t helping. As the authors explain, the compliance-driven mentality that reporting up to the feds has fostered has created a legacy of compliance-based state and local data systems. Hopefully the federal government can start to fund the development of systems that measure learning itself and generate actionable data, rather than backward looking snapshots of school performance. Moreover, aligning accountability standards to competency-based models could spur meaningful demand in the market for student information and data products that track real-time individual student progress.

I had two concerns reading the paper that were not unique to the federal policy context, but that continue to pose challenges to the field of competency-based design and research. First, competency-based models are still evolving. As schools transition away from time-based practices, many will find themselves in a “hybrid” stage, where they are layering some competency-based practices on top of vestiges of the time-based system such as grade levels. We need to be sure that if we manage to spur change at the federal level, a federal vision of competency-based education is clear and flexible enough to both accommodate these new or evolving models but to not be so capacious as to reinforce the time-based status quo.

Second, the federal Department of Education has rightfully made equity a key priority over the past decades. As competency-based approaches take hold, we should maintain No Child Left Behind’s deep emphasis on transparency and focus on subgroup outcomes. The authors argue that in a competency-based system “increased transparency and equity shift the focus to closing the achievement gap and raising the bar for each student.” (p. 10) Although measuring students’ actual mastery is likely to increase transparency, so far we have little data on whether allowing students to progress at their own pace can successfully shrink the achievement gap.  Focusing on precisely how competency-based education can address the achievement gap seems like a vital step to reimagining federal policies that will loosen the grip of time-based practices in schools.

Pace and Worthen’s paper is an impressive and comprehensive look at how accountability, assessment, and data systems currently aligned to federal priorities run counter to the goals and logistics of a competency-based model. It raises important questions that practitioners and policymakers alike must wrestle with as more competency-based school models take hold across the country.

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.