News

Is competency-based learning the next big thing in school reform?

By Ty Tagami, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
December 2nd, 2015

A new proposal out of Georgia is betting it is, and supporters hope schools will implement it soon

competency-basedIn a typical Georgia school, kids like Sean Prisk would have to abide by a kind of classroom speed limit, forced to learn at the same pace as others his age. But no one stopped this Henry County seventh-grader when he stomped on the gas.

He accelerated two years ahead of his classmates in math and is now doing freshman-level work. “Math comes naturally to me,” he said.

Sean entered Locust Grove Middle School as it was implementing “competency-based” learning, which tailors schooling to each child’s ability. Students who excel move on. Those who are struggling slow down and try different methods, like exploring math or science concepts through art.

The school’s computer-based approach could be replicated across the state if education reformers appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal get their way. There’s no conclusive evidence that it works better than traditional methods, but there is a growing group of proponents in other states. Many wonder whether it will prove too expensive, widening the gap between schools that can and cannot afford it, but advocates say it doesn’t have to be costly.

Locust Grove Principal Anthony Townsend believes his students are more engaged and learning more under the new approach. He says test data back that up. In 2014, students who participated in the computerized component of the program had 2 percentage point higher pass rates in math, English and reading than students who did not. The pass rates in social studies and science were each 9 percentage points higher.

The school is drawing attention. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is giving Henry County Schools more than $4 million based in part on Locust Grove, and people who have the ear of Gov. Nathan Deal see something worth emulating.

“It’s really hard to argue against it,” said Matt Arthur, deputy commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia. He led a subcommittee of the governor’s Education Reform Commission tasked with finding ways to improve graduation rates and preparation for college and careers. Arthur’s subcommittee, of which Townsend is a member, recommended that Deal create an educational system based partly on the work being done in Locust Grove.

Observers, including teachers advocates, say the idea sounds promising but warn it could be too expensive.

A school full of students progressing at different rates could “wreak havoc” on classroom management, said Craig Harper, a spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. He and others say the proposal would require new money for training, technological support and more teachers.

But Arthur, who until last year was director of education reform at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, did not recommend more money. “The state can’t afford that, and local systems can’t afford it either,” he said. “So you have to figure out a way to do it.”

Arthur’s panel proposed one change that could make it easier: Give the Georgia Milestones Tests, which are administered in the spring, more often. Arthur’s subcommittee wants multiple testing windows across the school year, so students can pass and move to the next level sooner.

The concept of competency-based learning has been around for decades, but was hard to pull off until the proliferation of two things: computers and universal educational standards.

Standards — the knowledge and skills students must acquire to master a subject — became universal under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which mandated annual tests and penalized schools with low pass rates.

Computers have become less expensive and easier to use, giving students a way to learn at their own pace while automatically tracking their progress.

Camille Farrington of the University of Chicago says the effectiveness of competency-based learning is unproven, but it is worth exploring because the traditional way of teaching, with lectures and books, isn’t effective with many students. “The reason everyone is trying to find something different is because there’s a clear problem with what we’ve been doing,” said Farrington, a senior research associate.

Zirka Franko, a veteran teacher at Locust Grove, likes the way she can tailor assignments to each child. On a recent afternoon in her bustling seventh-grade science and math class, students were choosing whether to take a computerized quiz or draw a diagram of a concept they were learning. Students are more engaged if they can make choices, she said. On one earlier assignment, for instance, some wanted to demonstrate what they’d learned by making a movie trailer. “I wouldn’t have thought of that,” she said. “Some of them are artists, some of them like computers and some of them just like books.”

Franko, who has been teaching more than two dozen years, said her students have “blossomed” under the new model.

The Education Reform Commission approved the proposal this month and will forward it to the governor. If Deal chooses to run with it without state funding, schools with less money might find it difficult to implement, said Jimmy Stokes, who leads a Georgia advocacy group for school superintendents, principals and administrators.

“It’s going to be a situation, unfortunately, of the haves and have-nots,” said Stokes, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders.

Townsend, the Locust Grove principal, said resources were not a constraint for him, and this model doesn’t have to be expensive. The school district supplied computers, but he didn’t hire more teachers and he didn’t get more money in the beginning. The Gates money came later.

Like most principals, he already had a teacher-training budget. He just spent it differently. The hard part, he said, was identifying quality programs for his teachers and getting them, and the parents, to accept something new and untested.

He worked smaller classrooms into the schedule with the help of computers. How? He rotates kids through a big digital lab where about 70 students work independently on assignments, with help from a teacher and some aides. That frees up other teachers to run classrooms of 15 to 20 students — about two-thirds to half the typical size.

The computer focus caused a backlash from some parents. Kimberly Del Rosario, the PTSO president at Locust Grove, said her daughter struggled to adapt to the online coursework. Del Rosario ultimately decided that the benefits were worth it, though: her daughter came to feel an ownership over her education, Del Rosario said. “I have seen confidence in my daughter that I have never seen before.”

Aydan Smith, a sixth-grade student, likes the way his teachers run school now. Before, he had to wait while the other children caught up to him, and sometimes he’d get confused by the time they did.

“I feel much more comfortable with this because I’m able to go at my own pace,” said Aydan, 11. “The teachers won’t hold me back, and they will catch me up if I fall behind.”

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