By Karla Phillips

Competency-based education is a system of instruction where students advance to higher levels of learning when they demonstrate mastery of concepts and skills. In this setting, learning doesn’t rely on time, place or pace. Students are challenged and ultimately graduate ready to choose college or career. This new system is comprehensive and can include fundamental changes in schedules, calendars, assessment and grading.

I know what you are thinking…an education system truly centered on students? An education system where time becomes the variable and learning the constant? An education system where students move on when ready? What does that actually look like?

The toughest questions come with the realization that meeting kids where they are–and giving schools the flexibility to do that–may mean redesigning schools away from an age-based grade level system.

Thomas Rooney, superintendent of California’s Lindsay Unified School District, provided an answer at ExcelinEd’s National Summit that is the best I’ve ever heard:

“…You have a 16-year-old at a fourth-grade level. [What do you do?] I can tell you what we don’t do. We don’t put them down in a fourth-grade room.

We essentially put learners who are far behind like that on an individualized learning plan because they actually do know some of what’s needed in fourth grade; they do know some of fifth grade, some of sixth, some of seventh grade and some of eighth. So we clearly assess–determine–what they don’t know and do know, and we strategically go after it very intentionally individualized, or small group exactly what it is that they need. And what you might see is those learners are grouped with a group of 14, 15 and 16-year- olds that are all struggling. And for the first time, some of those kids in that environment are the smartest kids in the room. And they’re getting their needs met which influences motivation, esteem and takes off from there.”

Superintendent Rooney masterfully articulated the real goal of competency-based education–creating an infrastructure designed to meet students where they are. Flexibility in path and pace is not the goal but the means to a successful end.

It may look different from school to school but that’s a good thing. At its heart, competency-based education is a local initiative, and it may look different in a small rural school compared to a large urban high school.

Regardless of what their learning path may look like, the requirement to demonstrate competency in order to advance will help ensure that students will graduate when they are ready for college and career and this is the common goal for this new education system.

Visit ExcelinEd.org to learn more about Competency-Based Education, or contact me at [email protected] to learn how ExcelinEd can support your state.

For more see:

Karla Phillips is Policy Director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Follow her on Twitter: @azkarla.


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