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Utah and Florida signed bills to support competency-based learning pilots, but now the real work begins

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Apr 7, 2016

This month, governors in Utah and Florida signed bills supporting the creation of competency-based education pilot programs in districts and schools. Utah’s bill, SB 143, creates the Competency-Based Education Grants Program, which allows local education agencies to apply for grants to pilot competency-based education programs. Florida’s bill, SB 1365, establishes a competency-based innovation pilot program that gives five Florida school districts the ability to experiment with competency-based education. (iNACOL provides a good summary of the two bills here.)

Now that the policies are in place, the real work begins. Here are three things for educators and policymakers to keep in mind as they embark on pilots:

1. Treat competency-based learning as a whole-system—rather than one-off—reform
States hoping to seed more competency-based approaches must take a whole system-tack and recognize that competency-based education is a highly disruptive education model that will require a new disruptive value network. As such, effective state policies should offer coherent visions of the models that schools might adopt, new accountability structures to match those models, and a commitment to providing the tools to schools to pursue various models, all of which might qualify as competency-based. If policymakers fail to treat competency-based education as a system-wide reform, the movement risks going the way of many education fads that never changed the lives of real students in real classrooms. Indeed, although many states now allow for seat-time waivers, most districts are not taking advantage of them—probably because there’s no real value network to support such a shift. This risks putting rhetoric way out ahead of practice in a way that could undermine the credibility of the movement and the ideas that support it.

2. Invest in digital learning to scale competency-based instruction
Although the bills themselves do not focus on the role of technology, states need to keep in mind where digital learning can make competency-based education programs sustainable and scalable. Blended learning stands to support competency-based education in at least four overarching ways. First, a blended curriculum may offer a continuum of learning along which students can move at a flexible pace. This means that in a single classroom with one teacher, students are no longer confined to the boundaries of a traditional “course”; students who need more time to master concepts can do so, and others can move on to more challenging or different material. Second, when students learn through online learning, testing can occur on-demand, rather than be postponed until the end of an instructional module and then administered in a batch mode to an entire class. Third, online content can be deployed in a more modular manner than traditional face-to-face instruction, in turn offering students multiple pathways to mastery, rather than having a one-size-fits-all learning pathway contained in a single lesson or textbook. Finally, blended learning can support school systems attempting to take competency-based education to scale. Although a small school or classroom might manage to coordinate the competency-based system without technology tools, blended learning can allow educators to support and monitor numerous students who are progressing along individual learning paths at a flexible pace.

3. Scaffold in ongoing support
Once the laws are in place to allow districts and schools to create competency-based education programs, states need to provide supports to help districts and schools implement and design programs and competencies that meet their students’ needs. One example of a state doing this is New Hampshire, which, in 2005, became the first state to make a statewide effort to create a competency-based education system when it abolished the Carnegie unit and mandated that all high schools measure credit according to students’ mastery of material, rather than time spent in class. Because local control rules the day in the “live free or die” state, New Hampshire’s districts and charter schools were free to interpret and implement this mandate as they saw fit. The New Hampshire Department of Education (NHDOE), however, has taken an active role in providing technical support to local districts and schools that are looking for additional support. For example, the state has created recommended competencies in ELA, math, science, and social studies, all of which are aligned to the Common Core State Standards. To do this, the NHDOE engaged teams of practicing New Hampshire educators as well as the appropriate content area state associations working with the National Center for Assessment and the Center for Collaborative Education. It also established the New Hampshire Network Strategy, an initiative to connect educators throughout the state so that they can share and build resources in areas such as data collection, performance assessment, and professional development in support of new competency-based models. This networked model marks a crucial departure from mere top-down technical assistance and ensures that innovators across the state are working together to innovate away from seat-time based practice.

Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.