Getting Unstuck From the Pilot Phase

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Last week, Chester Finn, Jr. wrote a piece in Education Next, titled “Education’s Endless, Erroneous Either-Ors” (nice assonance). The piece calls out various familiar edu-dichotomies, such as “skills vs. knowledge;” “evaluate teachers by student results or peer judgments;” and “local or centralized control.” The piece is an interesting read but what caught my attention was his take on “gauging pupil progress by grade level or competency.”

Finn states the following positives about competency education, “easy to synchronize with sequential standards and curricula, lends itself to individualized instruction (including different levels in different subjects), avoids “social promotion” (as well as the boredom that afflicts gifted kids who learn something faster than their classmates), and harmonizes with online and blended learning opportunities.”

He then writes the following criticism stating that competency education “wreaks havoc with traditional school structures, demands much (by way of differentiated instruction) from teachers, may separate children from their friends and age mates, and frazzles parents who want to know whether Janie is in fourth or fifth grade.”

My first blush reaction to Finn was he writes as if “traditional school structures” are a good thing. I tend to believe that our outmoded, outdated structures are a barrier to personalized learning and default to being an adult-driven status quo. He states that competency education demands much from teachers especially in the area of differentiated instruction. Frankly, all environments, whether traditional or competency-based, should demand greater differentiation for all students not just those with formal IEPs. As a parent of three school aged children I can attest to being frazzled but I’m certain I could navigate the grade level issue.

My second reaction is more coherent and focused on the need for advocates of competency education to focus on results and scaling best practices. Nationally, an increasing number of states, districts and schools are migrating towards a competency-based approach. 39 states have competency based laws (including seat time waivers) on the books. 75% of the winning RTTT-D grants had competency based elements in them. States like NH, ME, KY, IA, and OR are working to implement competency education in a meaningful way. We are seeing results. 20 years ago, Chugach, AK was faced with grim realities including the fact that 90 percent of its students could not read at grade level and only one student in 26 years had ever graduated from college. Five years later, after an adoption of a competency based approach: The average student achievement on the state test rose from the bottom quartile to the 72nd percentile; the percentage of students participating in college entrance exams rose from zero to 70%; teacher turnover dropped to 2% where it was previously at 55%. Barack Obama Charter School, an elementary school in Los Angeles, CA is in its fourth year of implementation. The school works with a tougher than average population with 100% of the students on free or reduced lunch, 50% mobility rates, and less than 10% of the students performing at grade level when they entered the school. The school, with its competency-based focus, garnered a 150-point gain on the California Standards Test in the last school year. Lastly, Colorado’s Adams County School District 50 is currently in its third year of district-wide implementation of a competency-based approach and recently celebrated the exit of its last school from turnaround status this past year.

As results are achieved and best practices are developed the next step is to begin to scale practice. Education innovation, broadly speaking, and competency education, more specifically, tends to get stuck in the school pilot phase. There are countless examples of innovative, competency-based learning environments from coast to coast and a small number of high fidelity districts as well. But how do we reach real scale? How do we move from the isolated examples to whole systems of innovative options for all students? How do we develop the teachers and leaders needed to support (and align professional development dollars) and grow competency-based approaches? How do we build a school system, a learning system (if you will), with personalized learning at the core? I offer these questions because scale is most difficult in education. We know that there are levels. One important step in this work is to identify the conditions of success that a district should put in place to support the scaling of innovative (read as personalized, student-centered, technology infused, and competency based environments) learning environments throughout a K-12 school district. The next step would be to align the district conditions of success with what the state could do through policy, incentives and flexibility to drive scale. One excellent policy in this area is Kentucky’s Districts of Innovation. House Bill 37 (enacted 2012) provided school districts in Kentucky with the opportunity to apply to the Board of Education to be exempt from certain administrative and statutory provisions to begin to “rethink” school. (See my colleague, Lillian Pace’s post on Districts of Innovation for more information.)

Finn is spot on that “traditional school structures” stand in the way of scaling competency education. By focusing on results, development of best practices, models, and approaches, and scaling those emerging practices, models, and approaches, competency education advocates will begin to work around and then transform traditional educational structures to be not only more responsive to competency education but, importantly, more responsive to, supportive of, and centered on the student.