Competency-Based Education

Study: Policies Stifling Competency Ed

While the idea of competency-based education is intriguing to about 89 percent of educators, only half as many have taken action in their schools or districts to promote it. The reason why, according to two education organizations that have studied the issue: policy obstacles "that make implementation challenging."

The top three barriers to adoption include annual assessments that are "time-based" (86 percent); a system that doesn't allow for variation in pace (79 percent); and a system that only offers a single path for students to prove proficiency (74 percent). Barriers specifically tied to Title 1, the regulation that addresses funding of public education, cited by respondents included having to adhere to a system of assessment that aligns with grade-level knowledge rather than competencies (81 percent) and a system that doesn't give students multiple chances to show their mastery (77 percent). "Assessment does not strictly mean a pen and paper test!" stated one respondent.
Participants were asked,

Those results come out of a small survey done by KnowledgeWorks and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation as part of a push to get policymakers to revise regulations and practices that prevent competency-based education from flourishing. KnowledgeWorks supports two subsidiary organizations that help schools implement innovative programs and Nellie Mae is a New England public charity focused on education.

The idea of competency education is to emphasize student mastery rather than time spent in the classroom to gauge student learning; before a student advances, he or she must demonstrate understanding and skills of the learning objective at hand.

The survey was done in 2013 among 72 "innovative practitioners" to better understand what's holding back personalized learning models such as competency education. Those assertions were used to formulate a sample federal policy framework that was shared among educators at a workshop in 2014. The report that grew out of conversations during that workshop, "Building Consensus and Momentum: A Policy and Political Landscape for K-12 Competency Education," offers guidance to policymakers in helping them "explore the shift to K-12 competency education."

As long as policy barriers exist, the report noted, "schools and districts implementing competency-based models must keep 'two sets of books' — one that aligns with the competency-based system they value, and one to satisfy federal and state laws that align to the traditional system."

Although the report offered no specific recommendations, proponents of competency-based education "agreed" that accountability standards should extend measurement beyond the results of a single assessment" and should include "knowledge, skills and social and emotional competencies." Students should also have "multiple pathways" for showing what they've learned, be allowed to complete assessments after the objectives have been learned and "not during a pre-determined testing window."

"American schools are falling behind because students aren't leaving school prepared to be successful in work and life," KnowledgeWorks President and CEO Judy Peppler said in a statement. "We have the responsibility to ready every student for college, career and civic life. Competency-based learning helps us accomplish that."

"It's interesting to see a large percentage of educators interested in developing a competency-based system, but their innovative practices are often stifled by policy barriers," added Matt Williams, KnowledgeWorks vice president policy and advocacy. "Without significant policy change, they will be forced to work in two systems simultaneously: the competency-based system they believe will prepare graduates for future success and our traditional, time-based system."

The report is available on KnowledgeWorks' Web site.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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