Can Competency-Based Education Close Achievement Gaps? Try These Seven Classroom Strategies.

Topics: Assessment and Accountability, Education Equity, Vision and Culture

Competency-based education has the potential to close the achievement gaps that continue to persist in our education system, but potential is just a hopeful starting place.

How can you close the persistent achievement gaps that continue to plague the country’s K-12 education system? Competency-based education has the potential to close those gaps, but potential is just a hopeful starting place. We need greater clarity and adoption of effective classroom practices that will ensure those farthest behind make the greatest gains.

At the Hall-Dale Middle and High School in RSU-2 School District in Maine, district, school and classroom leaders have implemented seven strategies to help those students farthest behind.

Learning from best practices that are working:

1. Flexible Classrooms

The minimum goal at Hall-Dale is to reach a score of 3 (proficiency) on each learning target. Classrooms are flexible so students can use the time to catch up on concepts they found particularly challenging. This helps student develop a sense of self direction and motivation that is unparalleled in other classrooms I’ve visited. Teachers collaborate regularly to make sure they know on which subjects students need to spend extra time. This plays out in two ways at Hall-Dale:

    1. Extra Time for Challenging Concepts

      If a student has already achieved a 3 on all learning targets in on subject they can use their extra class time to complete work in a different subject. During the tour, I walked up to two students who appeared to be collaborating on an assignment in their eighth grade math class. When I asked what they were working on, one quickly responded “I’m helping my friend with his math learning targets and he is helping me with my Japanese learning targets.”

    2. Extra Time to Go Deeper

      Students at Hall-Dale talked constantly about their desire to get a 4 on learning targets. They often use extra time in a class to go back to learning targets so they can advance from a level 3 to a level 4 for mastery. Students were so proud to show us which targets they achieved a 4 on and were extra motivated to go back to their 3s and turn as many as possible into 4s.

2. Educator Collaboration

The teacher is essential to each student’s success at Hall-Dale. I was struck by how collaborative the culture was among educators. In addition to their structured weekly meetings to identify students that need extra supports, they also popped into each other’s classrooms throughout the day to touch base on different students and coordinate plans to ensure each day’s success.

3. Teacher-Student Relationships

Every student has an advisory period at Hall Dale where they have time to work on whatever projects or subjects they wish. Students have the same advisory teacher for two years so they can form deep relationships and receive the customized support that is necessary for success.

4. Formative Assessment

As I walked around one classroom, I would occasionally see students working on a pre-assessment quiz. They were proud to tell me about this process, primarily because it meant they were ready to demonstrate to their teacher mastery of a learning target. When I asked one teacher how she determined when a student was ready for a pre-assessment, she said, “they come to me when they are ready. It’s an exciting moment.”

I pushed her a little to see what would happen if a student didn’t have that level of self-direction and she assured me she knows what each child needs in her class and she is already working with those students to build mastery and confidence. Once a student completes the quiz, the teacher works directly with that student to provide one-to-one feedback.

5. Leveraging Student Interests

Engagement is the secret weapon for most struggling students. Hall Dale has a personalized learning plan to address this head on. One student presented her personalized learning plan. She was proud to introduce us to her as a learner including her interests, recent projects, learning targets she earned a 4 on and learning targets where she struggled but was proud to finally reach mastery. This process celebrates each learner, giving educators the opportunity to align instruction accordingly and for students to engage with and own the process.

Competency-based education has the potential to close the achievement gaps that continue to persist in our education system, but potential is just a hopeful starting place.

6. Academic Afterschool School

Educators often encourage students who are falling off pace in a subject to stay afterschool and spend some one-on-one time on challenging concepts. The school provides a bus to take all students home afterwards.

7. Intervention Weeks

While I’m sure these are not popular options with students, educators offer voluntary academic support time during Spring and Winter breaks for students who are falling off pace in a subject. Educators encourage students to attend and for those who are motivated, this is a great opportunity for additional instructional time.

Competency-based education has the potential to close the achievement gaps that continue to persist in our education system, but potential is just a hopeful starting place.

While many of these strategies are not new concepts, in aggregate, they create a culture at Hall-Dale committed to individual student achievement. What I witnessed is a group of students who will graduate from Hall Dale with academic proficiency and skills necessary to navigate future success in postsecondary and the workforce. Now the real challenge lies in how we recreate this for every student in the country.

When RSU2 made the switch to personalized learning, community was essential to their success.