Competency-Based Education Gains Momentum

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We’re examining competency-based education (CBE), an approach that has been celebrated for its customization and modularized structure, enabling students to demonstrate mastery and move at their own pace through academic programs. Beyond its timing advantages, CBE also has been cited as a means of supporting student equity, and encouraging knowledge transfer--in order to sufficiently educate kids as well as adults for roles that are currently evolving, or perhaps those which have yet to be created.

While CBE remains somewhat nascent across K-12 districts and postsecondary institutions, it has gained a foothold and interest in it continues to grow across the United States.

I spoke with educators, academic experts and institutional leaders to learn more about the ways in which CBE is serving students of all ages, grades and skill levels, and to better understand existing collaborations or points of intersection between schools and academia.

The approach is currently bridging gaps between employers and aspiring college graduates; there appears to be significant potential for CBE to also positively impact younger students.

Embracing the Real World

Matthew Prineas, Vice Provost and Dean of The Undergraduate School at University of Maryland University College, agrees.

"The promise of competency-based methodology is its power to create new connections and seamless pathways between K12, higher education, and the workplace,” he said.

“At UMUC, we are developing competency-based learning experiences that connect the real-world skills employers are asking for with the intellectual abilities our students need for academic success. We believe that competency-based approaches are equally adaptable to the needs of our adult students, who are looking to connect their prior experience with a college credential and a profession, as they are for high school students, who need to develop the foundational skills and behaviors necessary for success in college and beyond.

The emphasis is, of course, on demonstrated mastery rather than rote memorization.

“By putting the focus on what students can do, not just what they know, competencies give us the means to construct learning experiences that are more relevant and engaging—and that is to the benefit of all students, wherever they are in their educational journey."

Imagining a New Academic Experience

Chris Sturgis, Co-Founder CompetencyWorks, believes that while significant differences between the two sides exist, alignment is possible—and could be extremely beneficial for students of all ages and backgrounds.

“At the level of conceptualization, K12 and institutions of higher education have a shared understanding of competency education,” she explained. “Yet, in the implementation to date there are differences, and some of them are significant. For example, a school district must serve all students regardless of their skill levels or educational experiences. Institutions of higher education have more ability to select their students, whereas districts have to organize themselves to meet the needs of every student regardless of their skills and educational experiences.”

Student agency also plays a role.

“Another difference is that institutions of higher education can screen for self-directed learning skills: many have created parallel programs, one online with a traditional structure and one competency-based and online for students who have demonstrated adequate self-directed learning skills. K-12 districts and schools are creating the capacity to help all students learn the self-directed skills needed for college and careers. Over time, it is likely that the two approaches will become more alike. In the meantime, it is important to understand the differences in order to learn across the sectors.”

Greater affiliation K-12 and higher education CBE programs could also boost student equity.

“We have not even begun to tap into the potential of aligning the two sectors of K-12 and institutions of higher education around competencies,” Sturgis explained.

“Imagine the world where students know exactly what it means to be doing freshmen level work while in high school and can demonstrate their mastery based on calibrated assessments. Imagine the world where students who feel that they are not being well served by districts, particularly young men of color, can find opportunities to complete their high school degree at a community-based organization supported with programming provided by districts or colleges. Once we have robustly calibrated understanding of performance levels and quality control mechanisms in place—so that we never return to a situation of inconsistency, meaningless credits and variability in grading—the sky is the limit in how we organize learning experiences that meet the needs of all of our students.”

Building Stronger Regional Connections

Mark Kostin, Associate Director of Great Schools Partnership, identified several areas of intersection he has seen through the organization’s role as conveners of the New England Secondary School Consortium.

“High school graduates who have come from a CBE environment tend to be greater advocates for their own learning, emphasizing relevance and meaning as part of their experience,” he said. “They’re more desirous of clear and actionable feedback against transparent, shared expectations, and tend to have honed self advocacy skills and awareness as agents of their own learning. We often hear stories from schools that we work with; some have told us that college freshmen who are CBE high school graduates will proactively approach professors to see the rubric.”

It has engendered an organic K-16 discipline-based conversation.

“We work with a handful of school districts who either by proximity or through dual enrollment programs have developed both formal and informal relationships with institutions of higher education. For example, high school science teachers and biology professors are discussing what progression should look like, sharing expectations so that grads can be better prepared. It’s happening now, but currently it’s taking place in pockets rather than across institutions.”

Collaboration often hinges on a number of factors such as district or state policies.

“Schools that historically have had dual enrollment or early college depending upon language that district or state tends to use. There are two possible models: if the college campus is within driving distance from a CBE high school that will send students to pursue degrees, the college will need to closely track academic standards. This is an obvious important connection that has to happen; a translation of sorts, so that everyone knows what a B+ ‘means’. I think we’re at the early stages of that. In some cases, there have been very productive conversations that actually examine standards and the assessment of those standards as well, going well beyond reviewing the syllabus to determine equivalency. In fact, some CBE high schools will send their rubrics to the college faculty, eager to know how their students performed against their own rubrics. They’ll even ask that student to return and share their portfolio of learning outcomes.”

What about training teachers for competency-based models?

“Teacher preparation is critical. With a growing number of secondary schools in New England using a CBE model, you can imagine that districts in their hiring processes are looking for candidates with experience in or knowledge of CBE. We’re seeing that transpire in Maine in particular, as ‘receiving schools’ (schools that hire new teacher grads) are part of an advisory group to the teacher education program at area universities. The level of responsiveness in terms of serving regional schools is important.”

Kostin cited a raised awareness of what’s happening via policy and research centers at universities, including one institution that is shifting to an entire competency-based model (the University of Maine at Presque Isle). However, he notes that on both sides, we are ‘at the early stages of mostly pioneering states’.

Piloting Intersectional Partnerships

Steve Kossakoski, CEO of Virtual Learning Academy (VLACS), an online public middle and high school, believes that competency-based education could lead to significant changes in the way in which students are educated.

“Competency-based education effectively transforms the one-size-fits all learning model into one where time, pace, and place can flex to meet the needs of students. At VLACS, competency-based education is the foundation of our customized learning model. We define customized learning as providing students with the freedom to determine when, where, and how they will learn based on their needs, interests, and talents.”

Two recent collaborations with institutions of higher education enable high school students to work toward an associate degree while pursuing their diplomas.

“VLACS has partnered with Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) to offer a unique early college program. Students have the option of completing one or more college courses, completing the first year of an associate degree program, or completing an entire associate degree program while in high school. Students who earn an associate degree through this program will be invited to receive their degree at Southern New Hampshire University’s commencement ceremony. We’ve also partnered with the Community College System of New Hampshire (CCSNH) to offer a number of additional college courses—some of which may be used to fulfill parts of the SNHU degree requirements. Each institution offers unique and exciting opportunities to students.”

Editor’s Note: In the coming months, we look forward to building out this series, but we recognize that it won’t be as worthwhile as it could be without your support. What can you do? Submit topic ideas, write a guest blog, or offer your perspective in our comments section below.

Kristi DePaul of Founders Marketing provides editorial support and regular contributions to the Transforming Higher Ed column of EDUCAUSE Review on issues of teaching, learning, and edtech.