Here are five key challenges faced by developers of effective competency-based systems that would be useful for all K12 students:

Challenge 1: Protecting High Levels of Proficiency

There is nothing inherent in competency-based approaches that guarantees that disadvantaged children will achieve at high levels. The biggest risks are that proficiency on learning objectives is set too low or that resources are not directed toward students that are struggling to demonstrate proficiency. The Oregon Proficiency Project is building substantial knowledge on the changes in the classroom that nurture a high-quality, competency-based program. It is also in the process of defining the attributes that are required for a competency-based approach at the classroom, school, district, and state levels. Oregon’s efforts are forming an initial base of knowledge to guide districts and schools in establishing excellence in competency-based practices.

Challenge 2: Re-Engineering for Student Learning

A full competency-based pathway requires re-engineering around student learning. The current policy environment that emphasizes accountability and compliance may be a substantial constraint in designing practices and management information systems that fully support principals and teachers.

Given the highly interdependent nature of the education system, a full implementation of a competency-based pathway is likely to require minor and major revisions throughout the system infrastructure. As we move forward, it will be important to determine the types of modifications needed, the complexity and cost of doing so, and the key leverage points in the system. Furthermore, the requirements needed to run two systems simultaneously—developing innovative competency-based metrics while also trying to improve the traditional system—may be too cumbersome to be realistic.

Challenge 3: Integrating Student Information and Learning Management Systems

Although competency-based approaches have been used in the past, the advances in information technology are enabling it for the first time to become truly operational. Competency-based pathways generate massive amounts of data about student learning. Without adequate technology, the paperwork involved can be overwhelming.

A high-quality, competency-based approach benefits from linking the architecture of a student information system of data to a learning management system that maintains curriculum, standards, and competencies. With this integration, individual student learning plans can be developed, the student learning trajectory monitored to ensure progression, and a deeper understanding of what helps the student to succeed identified through real-time data.

Challenge 4: Aligning Incentives for Students, Educators, and Communities

Over time, competency-based approaches will require alignment of the incentive structures of policy, accountability, and funding to support customization. Given that competency-based approaches are designed to produce outcomes in student achievement, reward systems may need to be focused, at least partially, on attainment. Yet, redesigning funding is filled with its own pitfalls and obstacles. Competency-based pathways will also raise the question of how to engage and reward the organizations or people outside of the classroom, such as after-school programs, that help students progress.

Challenge 5: Nurturing Organic Expansion and Innovation Space

At this stage, the growth of competency-based practices will most likely be organic. More innovators and early adopters are expected to enter the field as competency-based policy platforms are established, other innovations will be modified to include competency-based practices, and some early adopters will branch off with alternative approaches. For now, top-down approaches may be difficult primarily because of the small pool of innovators and limited technical assistance capacity.

It is equally important to recognize the need for innovation space so that new efforts and adaptations may continue to develop their new approaches. It is no coincidence that two of the best examples of competency-based approaches, Florida Virtual School and Western Governors University, were designed in protected innovation space and supported by policies that allowed them to experiment without time-based constraints. Federal and state policymakers can support innovation space through pilot programs and evaluation to ensure that high-quality pathways are established.

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