A new report says that competency-based learning is becoming more attainable for schools, and with some actionable policy steps, state education leaders can help schools personalize learning and focus on competency rather than how long students are in school.
The report, titled “Cracking the Code: Synchronizing Policy and Practice for Performance-Based Learning,” comes from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), with help from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). It calls into question the logic of “seat time” and current accountability standards.
“We are proposing what amounts to a vital change in current methods of instruction and measurement so that students can move ahead when they demonstrate knowledge,” said Susan Patrick, co-author of the report and president of iNACOL. “Unfortunately, many states and school districts are still handcuffed by rigid regulations that prevent them from moving toward the student-centered, performance-based approach.”
The report, says Patrick, offers guidance and practical recommendations for state education policy makers. The recommendations are based on discussions by education stakeholders during the 2011 Competency-Based Learning Summit from iNACOL and the CCSSO earlier this year.
The report says a comprehensive policy redesign will require competency-based credits, personalized learning plans, information technology, professional development (PD), and quality control in support of individual student growth for accountability “while aligning higher education with K-12 competency-based efforts.”
A starting point
The report begins by defining what is meant by competency-based, or performance-based, learning—as well as why it needs support.
According to iNACOL and Chris Sturgis, co-author of the report and a principal at MetisNet, competency-based learning relies on:
- Students advancing upon mastery;
- Competencies including explicit, measurable, and transferable learning objectives that empower students;
- Assessments that are meaningful and provide a positive learning experience for students;
- Students receiving timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; and
- Learning outcomes that emphasize competencies such as the application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.
Successful implementation of competency-based standards not only will help students have a positive experience with learning, but also will “increase [the nation’s] productivity” by decreasing the dropout rate and closing the achievement gap, the report argues.
“With approximately $600 billion spent annually in the U.S. on K-12 education, why wouldn’t we want to create incentives for our schools so that every dollar going to fund education was based on students’ outcomes, performance, and growth in learning toward world-class expectations, rather than on seat time?” the authors ask. “What would it take to unleash innovation to allow practitioners, educators, and administrators to create competency-based pathways of learning for each student, regardless of where or how long they sit?”
As one participant in the iNACOL/CCSSO forum expressed: “The problem is quite simple—we are measuring the wrong end of the student, related to learning.”
Recommendations: For beginners
For those states looking to take their first steps in moving toward competency-based learning, the report suggests thinking about seat-time waivers and credit flexibility.
Seat-time waivers are useful because they allow districts, schools, or even classroom educators to have alternatives to seat-time restrictions while remaining in compliance with state policy.
Credit flexibility gives districts the ability to use competency-based learning instead of seat time, thanks to the expansion of online learning and the demand for credit recovery.
After state leaders consider both seat-time requirements and credit flexibility, the report suggests they:
- Require districts to offer competency-based credits so that students have competency-based options, such as alternative schools and credit recovery;
- Provide support mechanisms, because education leaders will need opportunities to work with their colleagues or technical assistance providers to create competencies, train teachers, and establish information management systems;
- Establish quality-control mechanisms to safeguard equity and to ensure that higher expectations for student learning are not compromised. States will want to design rubrics and formative evaluations, and provide supporting tools and resources such as examples of student work at each proficiency level;
- Expand learning options in the community, after schools, and online; and
- Align higher education with K-12 competency-based efforts through teacher training, college admissions, and streamlining budgets to support accelerated learning.
Recommendations: Super hero
As forward-thinking states begin their adoption of competency-based learning standards, there are a number of opportunities that arise—for example, using the Common Core State Standards to eliminate seat-time requirements.
Here are the advanced recommendations from the report:
- Redefine the Carnegie Unit into competencies: With the Common Core, states now have the opportunity to use competencies as the organizing unit, rather than the time-based Carnegie Unit. States can do this by creating more modular units of learning by redefining the Carnegie Unit with competencies; facilitating collaborative efforts to implement the Common Core standards and develop competencies with precise learning objectives, including academic and lifelong competencies; and establishing mechanisms to protect fidelity to higher expectations.
- Support personalized learning: Create a personalized learning plan for every student; incentivize anytime, anywhere learning; and allow students to earn full or partial credit by demonstrating mastery on skills learned in class, online, and outside of school.
- Design student-centered accountability and assessment models: Create more individual student growth models; move from once-a year, end-of-year testing regimes to modularized testing throughout the year that measures individual student progress on a regular basis; strive for summative tests to be taken at the point students have mastered coursework and competencies by increasing the frequency of state-required exit exams and on-demand testing opportunities for students; ensure that age-based policies are not written into accountability laws at the state level for accountability; and include assessments that are based on performance, portfolios, and work samples that demonstrate mastery of complex knowledge and skills.
- Empower learning with technology: Design information systems to support students and teachers; design accountability using formative and summative data that are validated from the ground up; integrate tech systems, including digital learning, that allow student performance data to flow seamlessly between learning management systems (LMS), content management systems (CMS), assessment systems, and student information systems (SIS); create meaningful dashboards or reports that display data graphically to support teachers, parents, and students in managing progress; expand online learning and blended learning; and support open architecture and open educational resources.
- Support educators: Increase flexibility in staffing, while restructuring the role of the educator; partner with educator associations and unions to explore the possibilities in a competency-based system; upgrade PD policies and programming to respond to the specific needs of educators and students within a competency-based system; redefine “highly-qualified teachers” as “highly effective educators” and ensure that the definition is not tied to time-based systems; and facilitate upgrading teacher education.
- Reconsider financing: Incentivize high-quality, competency-based learning models by rewarding schools and districts that are most effectively serving traditionally underserved students; streamline funding within K-20 education so that students can advance to higher-level courses, even while remaining in school; modularize courses so that schools serving highly mobile students can receive proportional funding for student progress and so that students can receive proportional credit for modules they have mastered.
The report also gives advice on how states can work together to build their visions of competency-based learning, and it notes what steps the federal government can take in aiding these goals. It includes individual case studies of what some forward-thinking states have done as well.
“The discussion in this paper is only the beginning in shaping next generation state policy to support a new range of competency-based learning,” the report’s authors conclude. “States will need to work together, building on each other’s advancements and experiences in developing competency-based learning.”
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