Education Policy | Q&A

Beyond Seat Time: Advancing Proficiency-Based Learning

Can we do without the traditional school year? Is it feasible to shift to a system of student advancement based solely on proficiency? iNacol's Susan Patrick shares her vision of what such a system would look like and what it will take to get there. (Hint: It's already underway in some states.)

There's an effort underway to replace traditional student advancement (based on "seat time") with advancement based strictly on demonstrated mastery of a subject. It's not a particularly new notion, but it's one that's gained traction in recent years as technology has begun to make feasible the requirements such a system would impose--frequent and rigorous assessment well beyond fill-in-the-bubble tests, differentiated instruction, the continuous movement of massive amounts of assessment data, access to the breadth of instruction that communications technologies have only recently made viable, and much more.

Under such a system, failure is literally "not an option," according to Susan Patrick, president and CEO of iNACOL, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Students move up to the next level when they've demonstrated proficiency, allowing advanced students to proceed at an accelerated pace and providing extra attention to the ones who need more help before pushing them out the door.

But how realistic is such a system right now? To enable competency-based learning (also known as proficiency-based learning) would require policy changes at the state and federal levels, cultural shifts within education itself, and the implementation of technologies and training to support the system.

But according to Patrick, such a system is not only feasible; it's already underway in some states in various forms and at various stages of development. But much still needs to be done.

Patrick recently authored a report on competency-based learning, "Cracking the Code: Synchronizing Policy and Practice for Performance-based Learning." In it, she and co-author and MetisNet Principal Chris Sturgis proposed a framework and offered recommendations aimed at accelerating policy development around competency-based learning, policy that's aimed at "loosen[ing] the regulatory environment that is handcuffing administrators and educators who are ready to move toward student-centered, competency-based models of learning."

In this interview, Patrick explains why such a system is crucial at this time and provides further insight into what it would look like.

In addition to heading up iNACOL, Patrick is also the former director of the United States Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology. iNACOL is a non-profit advocacy and research organization that focuses on issues in K-12 virtual learning. It represents a broad spectrum of groups centered around education, including schools themselves, state and local education agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, and various technology and content providers.

David Nagel: What's the imperative for moving to a competency- or proficiency-based system of student advancement? How is it better, more suited to the mission of education, than the currently widespread system?

Susan Patrick: Next generation learning models that allow students to move at their own pace, any time, any place with personalized learning delivered by teachers using high-quality digital curriculum are being developed and hold tremendous promise for improving student learning and performance. Online and blended learning also allow students to access high-quality courses at any location or geography and can expand opportunities for every student to a world-class education.

The single most important policy issue for schools and districts offering online learning are policies rooted in measuring seat-time to fund schools--rather than delivering flexible, anytime, anyplace learning for today's 21st century students using online and blended learning.

The achievement gap in United States schools is largely a result of the seat time-based system that drives education policy and funding today--a factory-era time schedule means that students who have huge gaps on fundamentals in their knowledge continue to be socially promoted with Cs, Ds, or a complete failure to grasp concepts in their lessons. Over time, this results in major gaps in student learning progressions. The big idea behind a proficiency-based system is that failure is no longer an option and that students must demonstrate proficiency before advancing on to the next lesson--"A, B, or try again."

The mission of education should be to prepare all students for college or career-readiness to be successful in their lifetimes in a globally competitive economy. We need to focus educating our youth on positive outcomes for students and re-engineering the education around student success.

Nagel: Are we talking about replacing the traditional age-based/seat time-based advancement system completely? Can you explain what you envision in the near term, mid-term, and long term?

Patrick: In "Cracking the Code: Synchronizing Policy and Practice for Performance-based Learning," we have a vision of replacing the monolithic seat time-based system completely but recognize that states and districts need flexibility in allowing competency-based learning approaches to flourish and innovate while ... making the transition.

In the near-term, some states are offering both seat-time waivers to districts and schools that allow individual programs or schools to make the transition to competency-based learning.

In the mid-term, more of the states allowing waivers are beginning to understand that requiring districts or schools to re-apply for waivers annually doesn't make sense, so these states are providing what is known as "credit flexibility" for giving permission to develop competency-based approaches as an alternative to seat-time with express permission already granted.

In the long term, we think that dramatic improvements to delivering education to all youth will demand comprehensive redesigns away from seat-time toward student-centered, competency-based learning models--and that states and districts will work together to understand the systems for competency-based learning progressions and personalized learning maps, professional development, management and administration requirements, technological approaches, and collaboration space--to learn best practices and create continuous improvement as new models for learning and education policies that drive innovation--instead of the current policy model of freezing static, monolithic environments with regulation.

Nagel: We've seen off and on support for competency-based learning over the last couple decades. What's different now?

Patrick: The idea is not new. But what makes competency-based learning so appealing today compared to what was possible decades ago is the ability to use technologies for personalizing learning for every student's needs. Technology shouldn't be layered over old instructional models.... Instead, we can use technology to develop new learning models that create multiple pathways, take advantage of students interests and passions, and build on the self-empowerment of the learner in providing clear and explicit learning objectives and measurable outcomes that empower the learner to engage, explore and create knowledge--then demonstrate the knowledge.

The teachers' role becomes very focused on student-centered instruction and evaluating student work at different levels of proficiency, assessing support and instructional models that work best for each individual.

What has been so difficult for years is the lack of information systems to manage the vast amounts of proficiency data on each lesson or learning objective. In the 1970s and 1980s, trying to manage competency-based learning in the classroom amounted to loads of paper, which was very difficult to manage. With the advent of online and blended learning models, online systems have personalized learning plans [and offer] access to digital resources and data interfaces with the student information system that allow teachers to focus on the art of instruction, rather than managing paper in the system; teachers can easily record the demonstration of mastery for each lesson and have clear, visual data showing how students are progressing.

In addition, the instructional design of these competency-based, online learning systems also uses recommendation engines for content that can help support students when they are struggling with new approaches. These tools make teachers' jobs easier and support competency-based learning in a way that just didn't exist decades ago--and the timing is right for shifting to more personalized instruction for every student. We have the tools to do competency-based learning and we should embrace new student-centered models because it allows for each student to have the personalizing learning they need to be successful and move at their own pace, or get extra help when they need it.

Nagel: What happens if we don't do this now?

Patrick: Unfortunately, with the demands on the education system today--if we don't move to competency-based learning models, we risk losing more and more students who fail to be engaged or prepared for success. We call our first report on the topic "when success is the only option" because competency-based models require a reframing of the instructional approach to assessing exactly where a student is and then getting them caught up with laser-focus or helping them accelerate and advance to maximize each student's individual potential.

Students today are dropping out of school because they are disenfranchised, bored, or frustrated with the "one size fits all" model, and we risk as leaving students behind because of huge gaps in the levels of proficiency.

We know students are not always being challenged appropriately at their cognitive ability, and yet we continue this time-based system of organizing learning. By providing appropriate instruction and real-time assessment with quality feedback and instruction, we can better personalize learning along competency-based pathways and build on what works for student engagement and interactive instructional models where teachers have tons of data on each student's movement through lessons and the level of proficiency across the learning trajectories.

If we do nothing, the achievement gap, which is a result of the time-based system, will continue to grow, and this is untenable.

Nagel: You've mentioned the achievement gap a couple times now. How is it a product of seat time?

Patrick: The time-based system does this: Students who have poor levels of proficiency, or even lack proficiency altogether in particular lessons, academic standards, or even full courses (C or D level grading), still go on to the next unit or course in most cases, resulting in time marching on and students having bigger and bigger gaps in their knowledge and skills.

Poor performance and below basic proficiency is an acceptable outcome in a time-based system. Regardless of an individual student's level of proficiency, the teacher moves on in the textbook (and whether or not a student understands it). At the end of the year in grades 3 through 8, summative assessments show that less than 50 percent of students in the United States are proficient in basic math and reading. The percentage of minority and low-income students at a basic level of proficiency in reading and math are even more disturbing--at 75 percent or more lacking basic proficiency. So this achievement gap that exists is a result of the time-based system. In a competency-based system, as Oregon put it, "poor performance" is not an "outcome" but instead "part of the learning process": A student cannot move ahead until they demonstrate mastery.

Nagel: Technology has to play a huge role in any conversation about shifting to a competency system. Is the technology ready? And are the teachers ready for the technology?

Patrick: Technology developers for online learning programs developed the information systems to organize learning along competency-based pathways. So, finally, we have technology systems and architectures that give us a model of what competency-based systems look like: They have digital content repositories; they have personalized learning plans (and data fields down to the individual academic standard/lesson) for student proficiency information; they have embedded assessments; they use learning management platforms. And they have integrated these systems to make the job of the teachers and administrators much easier.

The flip side of this is that many states and districts and individual schools have cobbled together older student data systems, with other technology systems that aren't integrating easily, so it makes the technology very "clunky" to manage personalized learning. With new openly architected platforms that allow systems to have open APIs and share information seamlessly, the capability of technology systems to support new learning models and competency-based approaches will be changing quickly in the next three to five years. There needs to be a concerted effort and focus for pre-service teacher education (colleges of education and alternative teacher licensure programs), as well as in-service professional development to give the teachers the skills and tools to support personalized digital learning that enables competency-based approaches.

Nagel: Is there the expertise right now to implement and work with these data systems? Do we have the will and resources to put in the kind of work that will be required to federate existing systems or migrate off those systems onto more open systems?

Patrick: There is a will for our students to be college- and career-ready; there is a will for our students to be globally competitive and have functional skills and knowledge to succeed in the 21st century; and this will require a re-engineering of our education system around competency-based approaches, rather than seat-time. This will require new information systems, and the expertise exists to create a shared learning infrastructure that allows competency-based learning. There will likely be an increase in philanthropic investments to help districts and states build the technology standards and open systems with support for our schools to make the transition to the 21st century so that personalized, competency-based learning is a possibility from the ground up and schools have better data on actual student levels of mastery in real-time.

Nagel: What do we need to do to ensure that "competency" doesn't devolve into a percentage on a standardized, fill-in-the-bubble test--especially with the accelerating federal investment in that area?

Patrick: The "fill in the bubble" test is a relic from before the 1950s. Competency-based learning requires students to demonstrate the knowledge based on creation of work products and teachers to protect high-levels of proficiency in demonstrating mastery. This means we need to turn the accountability models upside-down--and use the student outcomes data based on rigorous measures of proficiency and the key data--and roll this data from the student level up from students and teachers to school leaders, district administrators, policy makers--even up to the federal level--in real-time, every day. This is how every other industry looks at continuous improvement and accountability--from Starbucks to computer engineers. And with rigorous and valid student performance assessments based on multiple measures, we can ensure and protect high levels of proficiency for every student. Assessments need to be provided on-demand, in a more modular approach, to validate student learning as it occurs--not on a once-a-year, end-of-year calendar schedule with paper-and-pencil bubble sheets.

Nagel: What's the ideal method of assessing competency? Does it vary by subject?

Patrick: The ideal method of assessing competency is through demonstrated knowledge and the student's own work.

There's a great project at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) called EdSteps that has reviewed student work samples at varying levels of proficiency and uses actual student work and indicators for what teachers are looking for in assessing competency. In an interview that I did with Jim Schnitz of Western Governors University about how to assess competency, he said that the ideal way is to focus on the learning objective, then focus on what a high-level of mastery for demonstrating knowledge on that learning objective would look like--and also determine if that a student worked on an "analogous" set of problems or issues and could demonstrate that high level of proficiency in their work--what you want to see is the assessment of competency based on the sets of skills that make up the learning objective.

Another way to look at this is that in each academic standard there might be a single learning objective but 20 different skills a student would be using through the deeper learning process to work through the objectives. Mapping the objectives and the skills to performance-based, student work and allowing multiple measures--essay, work product, group presentation, individual student oral assessment with instructor--and having good rubrics that have been "tuned" across the subject matter (such as EdSteps providing rubrics with examples of student work) is the key to protecting high levels of proficiency.

By subject, it may be straightforward to learn math or science concepts and then be able to demonstrate that knowledge in an analogous problem set. For liberal arts, such as literature and social studies, it is still possible--but requires a solid understanding by educators and instructors of the set of learning expectations and levels of mastery with student work to determine the analogous conditions and assess competency on the work products of students. When districts have begun innovating in competency-based approaches, one of their first findings is the huge level of variability that exists in teachers assessing proficiency levels (used to a time-based system)--which is simply "uncovering the rocks" of what needs to be fixed in the system to help students succeed.

Nagel: What types of learning environments are best suited for competency-based advancement? Online? Blended?

Patrick: While you can certainly do competency-based learning in a traditional environment with worksheets and paper, I can't see how you could effectively manage allowing every student to have a personalized learning experience unless you were incorporating online and blended learning instructional models to support the teachers and students. Competency-based learning requires a strong, student-centered learning environment. And the strength of online learning is the ability to deliver personalized learning. Combining the best of both worlds--terrific teachers, digital content, personalized learning and the technologies of online and blended learning--allows new learning models that can dramatically improve learning outcomes using competency-based advancement.

Nagel: What do you see as the role of the teachers--and, for that matter, the 130,000 private and public physical campuses in this country--under a competency-based system?

Patrick: Except for a small percentage of students (less than 5 percent), most students are interested in the idea of going to a campus where they can learn. The public and private physical campuses are being reconfigured to support new learning models and extend learning time using anywhere, anytime learning opportunities. San Francisco has a Flex Academy downtown, using online and blended learning with teachers that are accessed in person and remotely to allow for flexibility--students can move at their own pace, show up to school three times a week or more, and develop better skills that match what is demanded of them in college or the workplace.

Most online learning programs use some blended model to expand course offerings; better personalize learning; and provide teachers, facilitators, and tutors in a location. New learning models use a variety of technology platforms; support new instructional models that are student-centered and competency-based; rely on more sophisticated proficiency data and student information systems (and architectures) that support personalized learning plans; pull in digital content; [and] support performance-based assessments and real-time feedback loops with increased interactions for students-instructors, student-student, and student-content. This can happen in formal and informal learning environments--giving students the flexibility they need to maximize their learning potential and improve learning beyond textbooks--instead of being forced into one-size fits all approach.

Nagel: In your recent report, you emphasized the need for a broadly accepted definition of competency-based learning. What is it?

Patrick: In both reports, a working definition was proposed to guide the development of policies and practice. This is particularly important as the language varies among states, districts, and schools and includes "proficiency-" and "performance-based learning." [2011 Competency-Based] Summit participants strengthened the working definition to describe a high-quality competency-based system.

The following is the revised working definition of competency-based learning approaches:

  • Students advance upon mastery;
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students;
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students;
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs;
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

We also recognized that "competency-based efforts are certainly not a silver bullet; only high-quality implementation will produce meaningful results. All five components of the definition need to be successfully implemented to ensure equity and excellence."

While there are many words being used to describe similar concepts--from competency-based learning, proficiency-based learning, mastery-based learning, and performance-based learning--we choose competency-based learning because it has appeared in federal programs such as Race to the Top.

Nagel: What needs to happen at the policy level for this to become a reality?            

Patrick: In policy, the first driver needs to be student learning guiding policy development and decision-making. This means examining current policies for seat-time and removing them; replacing them with student-centered, competency-based approaches; or at least providing the flexibility for innovations around competency-based learning in schools and districts. Competency-based learning depends on a high-quality data flow; personal learning maps for each student with levels of proficiency; and a re-engineered system around student outcomes at any time, any place, and any pace. Tying assessments to end-of-calendar year is a major barrier for competency-based pathways--so assessment needs to be rational and provided for the student to move on when ready as a validator of the quality of learning throughout the year and ensure high levels of proficiency.

New Hampshire is a leader in moving state policy toward competency-based learning and supporting practices in schools and districts. Fred Bramante on the State Board of Education in New Hampshire explained, "It's a problem when policy communicates that learning starts in September and ends in June. We have to be thinking about year-round learning for kids. That doesn't mean that a kid is in school all year round. It means that we support students learning all year round."

An executive summary of the "Cracking the Code" report can be downloaded in PDF form. The full report is freely available in PDF form as well. A related report, "It's Not a Matter of Time: Highlights from the 2011 Competency-Based Learning Summit," can also be accessed on iNacol's site.