3 Smart State Approaches to Competency-Based Education

Leadership, State Policy

A growing number of state policymakers are excited about the potential for competency-based education (CBE) to better meet individual student needs and eliminate learning gaps that traditional time-based systems have not been able to close.

In December, ExcelinEd outlined policy advances in Idaho, Georgia and Ohio. With the benefit of a few additional posts, the following is a progress report on three states you might consider unlikely policy innovators.

Empowering Innovation

In a competency-based system, students progress as they met learning expectations not based on age-based grade levels or seat-time requirements. While attractive, shifting to a competency-based systems is challenging for policy makers and practitioners alike.

Our principal recommendation is for states to authorize the creation of innovation districts or schools to pilot a competency-based system and identify the pathway for statewide policy adoption (see ExcelinEd model policy.) This strategy paves the road for innovative leaders to request flexibility from the rules or regulations that hinder innovation while committing to transition to competency-based education.

A CBE system allows students to accelerate through concepts and skills they have mastered yet receive more time and support in areas where they may have more difficulty. This new system is comprehensive and can necessitate fundamental changes in how credits and diplomas are awarded, how and when assessments are offered, and how schools, educators and students will be held accountable. Developing answers to these questions can appear daunting and complicate attempts to reform, however, the solutions can and should be embedded into the pilot process.

CBE requires local leadership and an evaluation of state policies that can enable and support or hinder the transition. (See iNACOL report on Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders). Idaho, Ohio and Georgia provide three different state approaches to expedite the beginning of the initiative while allowing time for thoughtful implementation.

Idaho’s Mastery-Based Education

A 2013 recommendation from Governor Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education encouraged the shift to mastery-based education. Two years later, Idaho House Bill 110 passed unanimously with the support of education, business, and community leaders across the state.

The bill directed the Idaho Department of Education to develop a process for identifying 20 school districts or charter schools to serve as “incubators” for Mastery Education beginning in the 2016-17 school year. The bill also established a committee of teachers and leaders that met in the summer of 2015 to explore challenges and co-create solutions, as well as a statewide awareness campaign to really help people across the state understand what Mastery Education can do for Idaho students.

The decision was made in Idaho to proceed simultaneously with the beginning of a pilot program while also creating a venue and process to identify state policy issues that may need to be addressed. This allows the policy discussion to be informed by experience and not on speculation.

Interested schools/districts were encouraged to submit a letter of intent and take “The Mastery Education Readiness Survey” to self-assess direction, motivation, leadership, student focus, curriculum, instruction, technology, comprehensive data system, risk-taking, organizational structure, ownership and communication. Initial response suggests that the pilot project will be over subscribed.

Last week the Idaho Mastery Education Network Application was released. The instructions state that applicants must demonstrate commitment and capacity to serve all students with the support from their governing boards, administrators, and teaching staff. A plan must be articulated to design and implement a system that meets the clear definitions and expectations outlined by the end of the five year process, Applications are due Friday, March 11, 2016 and selections will be announced Friday April 22, 2016.

Next year, the 20 school/district incubators will form a professional learning community around Mastery Education—the Idaho Mastery Education Network–and data and lessons will be captured and shared.

Enabling Flexibility in Ohio

One of the characteristics of CBE is the amount of flexibility allowed for local design and it can vary widely in approach and appearance. This is good. It should look different in a 200-student rural high school versus an urban 2,000-student high school. However, the components or characteristics of a CBE program or system are well documented and can be articulated in the application request. The application Ohio developed for the Competency-Based Pilot is a good example.

In December, the Ohio Department of Education announced the award of five grants to implement competency based pilot programs. The grant program were established by the legislature and each winner will receive $400,000 each to implement their programs by the start of the 2016-2017 school year through 2019.

Georgia’s Phase-in Approach

In December Governor Nathan Deal’s Education Reform Commission issued its final report and recommended that Georgia “Begin the transition to a competency-based education system.”

Even before the subcommittee began its work, Georgia had made significant steps to encourage innovation in education and regulatory flexibility for schools and districts testing new ways to personalize learning. The Georgia Department of Education has also demonstrated its commitment to this policy through Georgia’s Path to Personalized Learning. The path provides more information on a variety of state-level resources available to schools to help them transition to personalized and competency-based learning.

As Karla recently noted, Georgia should be able to adopt a unique approach to providing flexibility through local governance reform and innovation funds. In particular, the state’s Charter Systems model and Investing in Educational Excellence/Strategic Waivers School Systems model provide districts with substantial opportunities for statutory and regulatory flexibility in exchange for increased accountability.

Georgia’s Innovation Fund began under the auspices of Race to the Top and has been in place since 2011. The program is well established, with solid procedures, applications, timelines and guidance for schools. An additional benefit is that the determination of fund priorities and eligibility requirements are not in statute or rule, thus ensuring sufficient flexibility and authority to incorporate competency-based education.

The groundwork has been clearly laid, and Georgia already has large districts that have indicated interest in or begun the transition to competency-based education. In particular, Fulton and Henry counties are providing best practices that other schools can learn from.

Next Steps

Making the case for CBE is the first step. Veteran teacher Kelly Brady is Idaho’s Director of Mastery Education. She’s the leading advocate for Mastery Education. Here’s how she describes the benefits:

  • Allows students to have more ownership and autonomy of their learning.
  • Provides flexibility in both student pace and path.
  • Connects student interest and passions to their education.
  • Empowers students in new and meaningful ways.
  • Develops critical thinkers and problem solvers, beyond just memorizers of information.
  • Allows for more personalized and differentiated learning.
  • Gives teachers new roles as facilitators of learning, rather than dispensers of knowledge.
  • Emphasizes social-emotional learning and growth mindsets for all students.
  • Makes assessment more meaningful since it is on-going and formative in nature.
  • Creates opportunities to form better relationships with students and their families.

Our friends at KnowledgeWorks lay out a nice framework for a process that could include a planning phase or conditional approval. A Design or Planning Phase can be the right time to form a working group and bring in outside experts. Plus, a design phase helps with the second issue which is the design of the program itself.

For more see:

Co-Authored with Karla Phillips the Policy Director for Competency Based Education at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Follow Karla on Twitter, @azkarla.


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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is author of Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and Learn Capital and serves on the boards of 4.0 Schools, eduInnovation, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners and Bloomboard. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.

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