Competency Education in a K-20 World

It was a typical Wednesday evening in mid-October at our home. My wife and I were sitting on our couch.  She was correcting papers, and I was doing some work on my laptop for school the next day. My wife suddenly exclaimed out loud, but somewhat to herself, “Wow, she’s already completed my course.” It was approximately half-way through the college semester, and a student had demonstrated mastery in all requirements for her course, and had “completed” everything that was assigned.

My wife is a math teacher at the Thompson School at the University of New Hampshire. One of the courses she teaches is a hybrid section of College Algebra that combines an online component with in-person class sessions to assist students with specific topics. Five years ago when my K-12 district, the Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire, started implementing competency-based education, I attempted (unsuccessfully at the time) to explain to my wife why competency-based education was superior to the traditional model of education. She was not the least bit impressed, and provided many rebukes to my attempts at convincing her.

Part of this was clearly my inability to adequately articulate what I intrinsically knew to be a better system for learning. Part of it was the “newness” of CBE for my wife and it’s significant differences from traditional forms of education. We had many ensuing conversations about why (or why not) behaviors should be separated from academics, how a student’s grade/success should not (or could) be decided by their participation (or lack thereof), and why it made no sense that a students should have to make up a whole course if they had not demonstrated mastery in a single competency within that course.

So on this night, as I sat on the couch, my wife described how this young woman in her class had demonstrated mastery in 514 concepts and had devoted over 100 hours of her time mastering these concepts, as tracked through the online system they were using, ALEKS. I asked her if this meant that the student had to go to the remaining classes since she had completed all of the requirements. My wife simply stated, “No, she’s done…” I looked at her and said, “Now that is a perfect example of competency education. It isn’t about seat time, it’s about demonstrating mastery of the concepts that need to be mastered.” My wife looked at me and smiled, and said she agreed. Students are learning at their own pace and demonstrating their understanding of the specific content she expects them to learn.

Since that time, my wife asked this particular student if she would mind taking the final that she would be giving to the class at the end of the semester (it would not count for this student). She wanted to see for herself if the two “really correlated.” Yesterday she shared with me that the student had willingly obliged, and scored a “92” on her final. “It works.

All I really care about is that they understand the material to a high level”, she said, and added that yet another student had just completed the course on-line, as well.

I realized that competency-based education is truly K-16+. The more educators learn about it, the more it seems to make sense. My wife had the opportunity to explore this at a pace that allowed her to come to her own conclusions. She went to workshops, researched resources like Khan Academy, and slowly integrated this into her courses. What resulted last week was the compilation of this learning process-A student completing the course because she had met the academic requirements, not because she sat through 40 hours of instruction.

We have been fortunate in the district I work in that we have been allowed the time to implement competency-based education and learn from the process. It was never presented as a something that we were going to be “done with” in a year’s time and that everything had to be perfect. I attribute this to resolute leadership at the top. Our superintendent, Dr. Brian Blake, understood that this process would take time, and our Director of Curriculum, Ellen Hume-Howard, patiently provided the research-base and guidance as we ran into the inevitable bumps in the road.

In fact, we still struggle every day. There is no roadmap laid out for us. We have worked hard at trying to consider our options and choosing the course that supports getting us closer to our goal of assisting every student in reaching his/her potential at a pace that is right for them. We are fortunate to have teachers who will try new things if:

1.) They make sense (what we are doing isn’t just a new fad and they understand the reasoning behind it.)
2.) It will help them help students to learn at a higher level (how is this going to help me help kids?)
3.) The supports are in place to help them learn how to implement it at a high level (is training available, etc.)

As competency-based education spreads, both within K-12 schools and districts and at the college level, educators across the nation and the world need to be able to question what we are doing and how we are doing things. Are we instructing and grading the way we always have because that’s the way it’s always been done? Or are we willing to provide each other with the encouragement to innovate and to learn about different ways of helping ALL students learn at high levels.

The latter will truly help redesign what learning looks like for all students, at any level, in the 21st century.