How the Feds Could Contribute to Competency Education

Courtesy of iNACOL

The feds can accelerate the shift to competency-based learning according to a new report by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), A K-12 Federal Policy Framework for Competency Education.  Like the iNACOL sponsored online community CompetencyWorks, the paper recaps the working definition of competency education:

  • Students advance upon mastery;
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students;
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students;
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; and
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

The paper suggests, “The federal government is in a unique position to catalyze and scale student-centered learning approaches–including competency-based education” by removing barriers, providing funding incentives, developing learning infrastructure, and investing in R&D to identify the most effective strategies for student success.
The paper is based on a framework including: greater rigor and relevance, a shift from “one size fits all” to “fits each student,” educator empowerment, and transparency and equity.
The paper is organized in the four sections each addressing a federal policy domain, discussed below.  
Accountability. The big shift in accountability, if congress ever reauthorizes ESEA, should be a shift from grade level proficiencies to a focus on growth rates for individual students–an upgrade from current cohort estimates.  IES, the Department’s research arm, should fund R&D projects that Propose Better Growth Measures.
The paper recommends:

Federal accountability policies should incent districts, schools, and educators to use real-time, individual student data to tailor instruction, supports, and interventions to ensure that each student is on pace to graduate with mastery of college- and career-ready standards and aligned competencies.

The call for “multiple measures of student growth and pace along learning progressions in a wide range of subjects” makes me nervous—I’d be happy with decent growth measures in English and math.  I’d like to see states and the feds signal about a broad set of college and career readiness goals, but they’d only muck things up by trying to add a grit measure, for example, to accountability systems any time soon.  Let’s figure out competency-based reading and math progressions and growth measures before pressing a broader agenda.
The paper notes that “New Hampshire was the first state in the nation to redefine the credit hour in terms of competency” (when Nick Donohue was chief), and “has since instituted a number of policies to align the state’s education system to student-centered learning” (with some support from Nellie Mae Education Foundation. See a recent blog about Nellie Mae sponsored NESSC, a high school network.)
Systems of Assessments. The paper recommends:

Flexible, balanced systems of assessments should measure mastery of competencies aligned to standards, with multiple measures, performance assessments, and evidence providing educators with a data-driven guide for prioritizing continuous improvement of student learning to ensure that every student is on pace to graduation.

I agree with the conclusions regarding Smarter Balanced and PARCC,

These new systems of assessments will help educators target instruction and supports for students. While these improvements will increase rigor and continuous improvement of the learning environment, additional steps would be needed to bring these assessments in line with a competency education system.

The paper breaks with the U.S. infatuation with heavy weight multi-purpose summative assessment (i.e., a bad attempt to serve many distinct assessment purposes) by suggesting that a new systems could “roll up” interim assessment data over time to inform summative accountability measures. Rather than a single formative system that would “roll up” to partially fulfill summative needs, comparable growth measures from very different learning environments would give us enough data about the performance of various learning environments.  As experience embedded and formative assessment becomes ubiquitous, summative can shift to a lightweight NAEP-like sampling strategy to confirm school quality.
The report doesn’t specifically address high school assessment which should incorporate on-demand end-of-course exams, as recommended by Digital Learning Now.
I’d also like to see a little federal love for portfolios. Every state should require that schools help student assemble a digital time series collection of personal bests.  (See the DLN paper Data Backpacks: Portable Records & Learner Profiles and Getting Smart features on eduClipper, Pathbrite, and Google Drive.)
Supports and Interventions.  The paper recommends:

The federal government should support states and districts in the development and implementation of a proactive system of supports and interventions that uses real-time data to help students advance to college and career readiness through learning experiences aligned to their personalized learning pathways.

This section recommends tweaks to Title 1.  Beyond that, federal intervention in student support systems seems like an overreach.
Data Systems. The paper recommends:

Student-centered data systems should collect, report, and provide transparent information on where every student is along a learning trajectory based on demonstrating high levels of competency, to help educators customize learning experiences to ensure that every student can master standards and aligned competencies. Data should provide useful information for improving teaching and learning, as well as for accountability and quality purposes.

The paper makes me nervous when it suggests districts should develop information systems and learning platforms—it’s  almost always a bad idea for districts to develop software.  It suggests states could partner to create “single interfaces that align a wide range of existing tools”—disappointments and delays around state IIS systems suggest this is not a good idea either.  A better alternative (described here) would be for networks of like-minded schools to share a common IT stack including student information system, learning management system, content and devices.
Conclusions & resources.  Done well, the shift to competency will ensure that “every student graduates with this strong foundation for success.” However, this transition will be even more challenging than the digital conversion.  As such, the paper urges community conversations.
The resource section is missing the Digital Learning Now paper, from Cohorts to Competency, co-authored with CompetencyWorks curator Chris Sturgis. (The paper is also available with the Blended Learning Implementation Guide and related papers in a free ebook, Navigating the Digital Shift).
This paper is the most comprehensive look at the federal role in supporting the shift to competency-based education making it an important contribution—and mostly on target.
Digital Learning Now! is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.  Tom Vander Ark is a director at iNACOL.

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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