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A fresh look at an old way of teaching in K12

Competency-based education encourages students to ‘show what you know’
Rose L. Colby, a competency-based learning and assessment specialist, is the author of Competency-Based Education.
Rose L. Colby, a competency-based learning and assessment specialist, is the author of Competency-Based Education.

Rose L. Colby’s book Competency-Based Education introduces educators to a new model for anytime, anywhere schooling, and provides curriculum resources for redesigning the traditional structures of our schools.

Colby, a competency-based learning and assessment specialist, says seat time doesn’t equal learning. A system based on demonstrating competencies does more to prepare students for higher education and the job market.

Competency-based education moves the traditional framework of curriculum, instruction and grading to a framework built on performance assessment, learning pathways and dynamic grading.

The book guides educators in the central elements of competency-based learning, including building collaborative teams and engaging parents and community members in adopting a new system.

“Most states have policies on their books to address and support and endorse competency education as a pathway to the future,” Colby says. “But education is slow to take on new things.”

You were a principal at one time. At what point did you think that competency-based learning would be a better way to teach and learn?

It was an evolution. We’ve been developing competency-based systems for more than 10 years. I was president of the New Hampshire state principals association, and was involved with the writing of the 2005 standards for minimum school approvals for the state. The language in those standards addressed real-world learning—that’s the way it was phrased at the time.

Fortunately, the state board of education was very forward in their thinking about it.

The original language in the 2005 minimum standards addressed high schools only. It said that students could gain credit for high school courses only if they demonstrated mastery of course competencies. It doesn’t make any difference how long it takes you to learn something, you just have to show the competency to demonstrate that you mastered it in order to get credit.

That was the beginning of the work. Since then, it has really evolved and grown more deeply in terms of systems design.

What the state never did, however, was to define what a competency was. So teachers just essentially wrote down all the content from their courses and said, “Kids have to know this.” We had to move the needle on that, so teachers really understood the difference between content standards and skills versus what a competency truly is in the rest of the world.

The whole competency-based education mindset is really a return to an earlier form of teaching and learning.

Yes, it is. There was a lot of good performance assessment work done back in the 1980s and early 90s. We were headed in that direction. And then No Child Left Behind came along and it became the era of high-stakes testing. I say it sucked the joy out of teaching and learning. We need to get back to what we did before.

But even earlier than that, doctor, lawyers, people in the arts—they were assessed by their competencies, not by filling in the blanks on a test.

Right. I love working with a staff of teachers and pulling career tech people and arts people into the conversation with regular content teachers, because they really get it. You don’t grade a kid on their practicing. You grade on what they’ve learned and how they apply it.

Some people, and I’m one of them, feel that it will take a generation to move public education in this direction. There are systems that are more nimble, like some of the charter schools for example. They’re not dealing with teachers unions. They’re not dealing with institutional practices that get in the way. That’s where we see a lot of pioneering work in competency-based education.

How about parental support for this “radical idea”?

I think parents understand personalized learning better than they understand competency-based education. And that’s OK, because I think it’s breaking down that notion that all kids sit and get the same thing each day, and then take the same test. We need to just ratchet up the understanding that it is the performance pieces that we’re moving toward.

You wrote, “If we ask the right questions and engage parents and other community members to elicit their opinions before we discuss any transformation, moving forward may be easier.” What kind of questions should be asked?

When I talk to school boards and parents, I always ask, “What does it take to get a handshake at graduation?” That’s really my mantra, because that’s the one thing that parents are in this game for, right? They want their kids to graduate and be successful young adults, either going to college or in a career of their choice.

Then we ask, “If this is truly what you want, then how do we contract with you to do this? How can you inform us about what they need to be taught?” The dirty secret is that the parents think their kids have been taught and have been assessed on those personal success skills, and they really haven’t.

Unfortunately, high school teachers, especially, feel that, “Hey, a kid has to be able to work independently. If they can’t, that’s the parent’s fault.” Teachers are not teaching the kids to work independently by what they’re putting out in their classes every day—especially if there’s a lot direct old-school instruction.

Let me be clear, I’m making a broad statement here. It’s not true of all teachers and all classes. But overall, traditional education, we know, is not doing the best in preparing students to be successful.

How long does it take to achieve this kind of change?

Generally speaking, if you have all of the right pieces in place—you’ve got teachers engaged, you have the right vision—it’s usually five to eight years. That’s what we’re seeing. It slogs along at first, because you are changing your current infrastructure, your current curriculum, your current assessment pieces. You have to look at your curriculum programs and make some big decisions.

But it goes faster after that. There’s a momentum that builds. A lot of foundational work isn’t seen by the public. You can, during that time, start improving the professional learning so teachers can see what good performance assessment looks like, and how they can start using it in the classroom. Then, as kids go home using different terminology, parents start understanding it.

There will be subtle changes—you won’t walk out of a traditional school at the end of June and return in September to a competency-based school.

What’s the easiest way to begin?

Introducing the notion of personalized learning is a great entry point for parents to understand it. Breaking away from the one-size-fits-all model is huge for teachers. They need to have confidence in their ability to do that, and to try new things in the classroom. And we’ve really kind of stripped that from our professionals.

We’ve not given them that authority in their own classrooms. We give teachers curriculum programs that tell them what to teach and when.

Some of the programs are so scripted, it even tells them what to say when they teach it, and how long they do each activity. So we’ve taken away the science of teaching from professionals. And they need to gain back the confidence that they can make some of these decisions in the best interest of the kids they have in front of them.

It’s tough. Changing to competency-based education might seem like a gamble for many people. They wonder whether it will be enough to succeed in higher education or the job market. An important piece to understand is that the landscape already is changing in hiring.

I understand that there’s a fear, especially in public education, that if we change and the colleges don’t, the kids won’t get accepted. But what we need to realize is that colleges are moving toward competency-based education probably faster than K12 public education.

I think there will be that number of colleges that will be the tipping point, where folks really see that as the future model for what college will look like. And as those colleges and universities start moving toward that, I think it will make K12 move toward competency-based education faster, and will make it more understandable.


Tim Goral is senior editor.