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Why We Need Competency-Based Education

(photocanal25/istockphoto)

(photocanal25/istockphoto)

Educators are increasingly getting behind a big idea: organize learning and recognize achievement based on students’ mastery of a defined set of competencies.

Competency-based education, also known as mastery, is gaining traction among federal policy initiatives, like Race to the Top; in district innovation zones and turnaround schools; and in high-quality afterschool programs and expanded learning models.

It may sound simple, but to meet the vision of competency-based education we need to think differently about almost every aspect of our education system.

At the Competency-Based Learning Summit leaders in this field developed a working definition based on five principles:

  1. Students advance upon achieving mastery.
  2. Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  3. Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  4. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  5. Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

(The Summit was sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), and MetisNet.)

Most schools currently operate around time-based structures for credit. These schools adhere to the traditional six-hour school day and nine-month school year. Students are grouped in grade levels mostly by age, learn through discipline-specific courses, and are assessed by standardized tests. These structures are not designed to support personalized learning that is sufficiently rigorous and relevant to engage all students to reach their greatest potential. Furthermore, standardized tests tell us very little about how well students are able to apply their knowledge and skills to the situations and challenges they will face in the world outside of school.

To any globally minded teacher, it quickly becomes obvious that traditional assessment practices—both classroom-based and large-scale measures—are inadequate to support the complex mix of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that comprise global competence. Global competence is based on a defined set of competencies like those described in principle 5 above. Schools that are committed to it as a goal for all students quickly realize that they must leverage a variety of learning experiences, in and out of school, to ensure that students are ready for the world.

In response, many schools, including those in Asia Society’s International Studies Schools Network, are designing project- and inquiry-based learning experiences in and out of the classroom, implementing systems of performance-based assessment, and establishing proficiency-based credit.

When these types of practices and policies are in place, schools can more easily connect Common Core State Standards and other standards to the competencies that students need to be successful in the global innovation age; leverage community partnerships and “anywhere, anytime” learning experiences to expand student knowledge and skills; and award credit based on performance assessments and demonstrated mastery of the competencies.

Some of the ways to support shifts in practice among schools, afterschool, and expanded learning programs, and community partners include:

  1. Identify and/or develop competencies that define the broader outcomes for young people in your school community. This might include grouping Common Core State Standards into “habits of mind” or 21st century skills. Asia Society’s global competence performance outcomes provide one example. No matter which competencies you use, make sure that educators and learners are familiar with the rubrics that are being used to assess them.
  2. Foster active and engaged inquiry through a project-based approach to the competencies. Here, the key is to design a project that scaffolds learning for students but also embeds authentic assessments that allow them to demonstrate their growing knowledge and skills. The four domains of global competence can help structure this type of inquiry- and project-based learning: Investigate the World, Recognize Perspectives, Communicate Ideas, and Take Action. Also, Asia Society schools use an acronym called SAGE to identify the aspects of a quality project or summative performance assessment: student choice, authentic work that adults do in the real world, global significance, and exhibition to a real-world audience.
  3. Collaboratively and regularly look at student work for evidence of proficiency in the competencies. This requires the use of a rubric to focus on what competencies students are demonstrating and how, by focusing on observation of evidence rather than interpretation into a grade. The process creates a shared understanding of what proficiency looks like when students demonstrate it, and more relevant feedback on what the student needs to do to progress towards it. Asia Society schools use the Protocols for Planning and Documenting Learning from the School Reform Initiative to help with this process.

No matter where you are in the process of moving towards competency-based education, be sure to explore the emerging models, policies, and practices featured in the following resources:

  • CompetencyWorks is a collaborative initiative of iNACOL and other organizations that draws on the knowledge of partners and advisors in competency-based education.
  • Students at the Center synthesizes and adapts for practice current research on key components of student-centered approaches to learning, including a series of papers.
  • Making Mastery Work is one of the many research reports offered by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation that focus on the needed changes in policy and practice to support competency-based models of education.
  • Off the Clock: Moving Education From Time to Competency This book provides an in-depth look at New Hampshire’s approach to competency-based education.