How Misconceptions About Competency Education Could Undermine Equity

Author: Chris Sturgis

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This post originally appeared on CompetencyWorks.

For several years, the fields of personalized learning, competency-based education, and blended learning were having definitional issues with the terms often being used either synonymously or to describe very discrete practices that neglected to capture the overall concepts in each. iNACOL and its project CompetencyWorks have taken leadership in helping the field understand these concepts as different and relational to build knowledge in communicating these topics.

This understanding of terms and what they mean might seem minor, but has significant implications on outcomes – it affects both the quality of personalized learning models and how to approach and address systemic reforms toward competency-based education systems. How we understand these terms and the intersection between them could make the difference between creating a system that produces equity and one that continues to have zip code and color of skin determine educational achievement.

By generating a universal lexicon and addressing misconceptions and misunderstandings that arise, we can help drive the field toward blended learning and competency education with greater ease.

Miscommunications such as the ones described below can derail important conversations and add to the complexity of where blended learning and competency education overlap. They can also lead to poor implementation, lower achievement, and inequitable practices.

1. Self-Paced Versus Flexible Pacing and Variable Supports: Probably the biggest area where there is a challenge in terminology is how the idea of flexible pacing is misused to be synonymous with competency education. Blended learning that employs digital content to allow self-pacing may help with flexibility and provide improved data feedback loops, but this alone does not create a personalized learning environment or competency-based progression. Implementing “self-paced” software in a time-based system is a limited notion, failing to emphasize the transparency, self-directed learning practices, higher-order skills, and commitment to helping students reach proficiency that is found in competency-based systems. Self-paced digital learning can be a powerful tool within a competency-based school, helping to provide flexible pacing, rapid feedback, and the ability to advance to higher level content and skills. However, online and blended learning alone, without the structural changes of true competency education, do not ensure that students will reach high levels of proficiency. Time and pacing matter in competency education systems. Teachers work with students to ensure they are progressing toward the ultimate goal of college and career readiness. Schools create the capacity to provide additional instructional supports and resources to students to ensure they continue to progress.

Beware of slipping into language of “faster” or “slower” students.  Those students who are trying to build their pre-requisite skills while also meeting grade-level standards are traveling a much farther distance over the continuum of learning. It’s likely that their rate of learning is much faster than those students with grade-level skills.

2. Standards Versus Competency: In order to provide a learning environment that requires students to think critically and to cultivate the higher-level skills needed for addressing complex problems, schools must develop competencies from the state standards. Competency education assumes that students will have the opportunity to apply their skills to challenging problems in new contexts through performance tasks, project-based learning, and/or real-world application. Districts and schools that have not taken the time to create rich performance-based assessments or to restructure schedules and calendars so students have the opportunity for deeper learning will be limited in fully implementing competency education. It is important to pay attention to the performance levels of digital learning, as they are often calibrated to the lower levels of recall and comprehension.

3. Standards-Referenced Grading Versus Standards-Based (or Competency-Based) Grading: The phrase competency education is also being increasingly referred to as a description for classrooms and schools that are using standards-referenced grading. Using standards rather than assignments to structure the learning provides the transparency needed for students to begin to own their learning. However, in standards-referenced grading, students are still passed on and advanced to the next lesson or subject even if they did not demonstrate mastery of the core standards in the course or grade. In standards-based grading (or competency-based grading) there is an intentional effort to build the capacity to respond to students who are “not yet proficient,” including careful consideration of additional time to learn, promotion, and retention.

It is important to also remember that we are shifting the education system from delivering curriculum to teaching learners. Similarly, we don’t want to simply replace curriculum with standards. We want to make sure that we are focused on teaching and learning with calibrated standards to guide us. Thus, standards-based grading shouldn’t only be about how students are doing in terms of grade-level standards. We need ways to communicate how students are doing in terms of their growth and where they are in their performance levels relative to their grade level.

Listen for breadth and scope when colleagues use the phrase competency-based learning. Competency education may be referring to a comprehensive restructuring of schools to ensure a consistent and coherent approach to support students reaching proficiency, or a more narrow definition emphasizing self-paced (or something in between).

What common misconceptions do you hear around competency education? Share them with us in the comments below or tweet to us here: @nacol, @CompetencyWorks, @sturgis_chris.

To learn more, follow this blog series on equity in personalized, competency-based and blended learning. You can find the first blog post here and the second blog post here.

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Photo by Craig Froehle.

Bio: Chris Sturgis is a writer and consultant with expertise in philanthropy, education and youth issues, and community engagement. Chris is based in Santa Fe, NM. Follow her on Twitter @sturgis_chris.

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