10 Design Choices of Competency-Based Schools

The shift from time to learning changes everything. Most obviously it changes how students move through an education system and earn credentials. But it also changes how learning opportunities are structured and supported by educators. It can change structures, staffing, schedules, and support systems. It changes the whole vocabulary of learning.
As noted last week, competency-based progressions aren’t really a goal in and of themselves; it’s just a strategy and structure to personalize learning. That said, it holds the potential of opening more options for students, of allowing them to learn more and do it faster.
Competency (proficiency or mastery) education requires a district or network commitment and full alignment of resources and systems—like blended learning, it is a team sport.
In the Digital Learning Now! paper The Shift from Cohorts to Competency we outlined the following 10 design choices that schools, districts, and networks need to make as they make the transition. (This infographic is a nice visual outline of the paper)

  1. Structure: “Show what you know” schools like High Tech High and the Expeditionary Learning network retain an age cohort structure while flex schools feature individual progress models. Rotational models like Carpe Diem and Nexus Academy (50% online, 50% workshop) are typically cohort models but with more flexibility to accommodate individual progress. Social learning platforms like Edmodo make it easy to incorporate dynamic grouping for performance levels, projects, interests, and advisories.
  2. Courses: Most secondary schools continue to use the course structure to indicate a unit of learning. The organization of the courses and the degree of modularity may vary based on the school calendar and the degree of importance the school design gives to curricular themes.
  3. Calendar: To create more time for students who need it, many competency systems move toward a year-round calendar. Some schools use a balanced calendar that has four sessions of 45 days with 15- to 30-day breaks in between for students to spend on extra practice or enrichment work. Florida Virtual School serves part-time students with year-round rolling enrollment courses.
  4. Themes: Some schools continue to use specific domains to organize their courses, while others use interdisciplinary courses and projects.  Denver Center for international Studies, a member of the International Studies School Network, uses global education as an organizing theme to shape its curriculum. ACE Leadership uses the context of architecture, construction, and engineering to design projects that are rooted in real-world industry challenges and designed to help students build up their competencies.
  5. Degree of Choice: Competency education enables more students voice and choice within a theme (International Studies School Network, New Tech Network) or a rapid pathway (Boston Day and Evening, Early College High Schools). The EAA’s Buzz platform allows students options on how to learn, practice, and demonstrate competence.
  6. Opportunities to Learn: There has been an explosion of opportunities for students to learn. The competencies and learning targets that make up learning progressions allow schools to offer a variety of ways to deliver instruction, perform curricular tasks, and demonstrate student learning. High school and college credit will increasingly be based on tested competence.
  7. Grading: Competency systems require a working level of knowledge and skill for every learning target–often expressed as a score of 3 on a 4 point scale. Competency grading doesn’t include extra credit but it always includes extra attempts.  Competency systems may incorporate incentives for exceeding minimum requirements.
  8. Assessment & Progress Tracking: Course or unit assessments for demonstrating competence should be available on demand.  Tracking systems should incorporate multiple assessments (e.g., EAA students collect three forms of evidence for each learning target) and provide summary reports (e.g., MasteryConnect mastery tracker).  Summit Public Schools are tracking student progress on four dimensions: academic content, cognitive skills, habits of success, and work experience.
  9. Support: In competency education, schools organize resources to keep students on their learning edge. Knowing that all students will struggle at some point, they embed time for extra help.
  10. Progression Upon Mastery: Competency systems use a variety of gateways to manage progress and matriculation. Some schools use a myriad of small gateways, while others focus on major demonstrations of learning every two or three years.

The full paper is also available as a chapter, along with the Blended Learning Implementation Guide, in a free ebook, Navigating the Digital Shift.  Join the competency conversation at CompetencyWorks.
Digital Learning Now! is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner. Edmodo is a portfolio company of Learn Capital where Tom is partner.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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