Is Oregon Ready to Scale Competency Education?

Topics: Education Policy

Last week my colleague, Jesse Moyer, and I had the pleasure of facilitating a session at the 2014 Northwest Proficiency/Competency Conference hosted by the Oregon Business Education Compact and the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators. We were asked by the conference organizers to guide the group through a number of exercises to answer two important questions: Is Oregon ready to take competency education to scale? And, if so, what are the next steps for the state?

The first question was more challenging than the second question. Although most participants in the room were advocates for proficiency-based education (the term used for competency in Oregon), the group identified a lot of barriers to scaling this work statewide. These barriers encompassed a wide range of issues including everything from lack of money to cultural resistance among parents and community members who are comfortable with traditional elements such as grades on transcripts used for college admittance.

As we progressed to the next steps exercise, it became clear that the room had a lot of really good ideas and pretty solid consensus on where they would like the state to dedicate its resources and energy. After casting their votes, the clear winners included the following:

  1. Provide quality professional development for proficiency-based education
  2. Engage higher education in the discussion to ensure system realignment
  3. Tied for third:
    • Identify districts that are doing this work well and send educators there to learn
    • Build political support for the policy transition to a proficiency-based system

The discussion proved to be a fascinating learning experience for me. Even in a room full of advocates, the tone of the conversation often felt heavy with challenge and frustration. In fact, when asked to share big takeaways from the session, one astute panelist expressed disappointment that the state has been stuck in the same conversation year after year without much forward momentum.

There is no question that adoption of a competency-based system comes with a long, and at times, daunting to-do list. It will take alignment at all levels of the system to take a big step forward. Fortunately, there are really thoughtful conversations like this one in Oregon happening all over the country. More and more educators are becoming engaged, district leaders are exploring new options, and state and federal policymakers are beginning to ask important questions.

These conversations will be fascinating to watch as they unfold and deepen over the next few years. Although there are likely to be tense moments, I feel confident a way forward will emerge. After all, everyone can already agree on one thing – the current system is not perfect and our children deserve nothing less.