A Moment in Education, Pregnant with Opportunity

A Moment in Education, Pregnant with Opportunity

Part 1 of 3 Becoming Competency Based

It’s becoming more and more clear that we will not return to “school as normal” in the short term.

The fact is, ‘normal school’ circa March 2020 won’t ever be back. Nor should it.

The fact is, ‘normal school’ circa March 2020 won’t ever be back. Nor should it. While none of us signed up for such a drastic and sudden transformation of our educational delivery system, we have stepped up to the challenge.  By many measures, we are succeeding. Staff have gained skills in short time. High percentages of students have devices and connectivity, prerequisites for distance learning.  Collaboration is multifaceted and growing.

If we are honest though, the “COVID crash” is a real thing.  Most alarming,there will be a widening of the achievement gap, which leaves too many of our promising children behind.  In reality, even disparate outcomes for historically underperforming students persisted at sickening levels even when we were conducting school in a traditional context. But now, things are getting even worse; Students who struggled in face to face settings, are struggling mightily with digital learning.  

This is our moment to re-imagine education.  

This is our moment to re-imagine education.  In a reflexive response to a sudden pandemic, our implementation of distance learning has been less than consistent across states, counties, districts, schools and classrooms (In our district, teachers are provided three implementation options for delivery of instruction).  And while public health models project varying scenarios for our next two years (see “This is the Future of the Pandemic”), now is the time to dream, to take risks, and to keep our most vulnerable, promising students at the center of our designs. 

Since we are driven to deliver on the promise of public education, I want to see three seismic shifts explored and launched over the next two school years.

1. Move to a competency based system of advancement towards a meaningful high school diploma.

Our efforts to educate every young person in America are rooted deeply in the belief that all men (and women and young people) are created equal with inalienable rights to pursue life liberty and happiness. We, perhaps too easily, assent that all children have this opportunity.  The problem is, publicly reported achievement data suggests otherwise. We see too many students dropping out before they complete high school.  We see disproportionate levels of students of color underperforming, compared to white peers.  We see English language learners making less than expected progress.  And we see students matriculating through grade levels, even conferred diplomas, without demonstrating baseline prerequisite skills that we, as a system, agree are important.

Since we (prek-12) have over thirteen years time to position students for success in a world we cannot yet see, we must be honest about some of the assumptions we are making along the way.  Too easily, we assume that:

  • Seat time is paramount.
  • Learning is a linear process that mimics the pace of standards introduced at each grade.
  • Smart is performing well on assessments.
  • Brilliance must be communicated and demonstrated through English speaking and writing.
  • Students deserve about the same amount of support.
  • College is accessible to everyone.

Many of these assumptions are weaker than the US economy during the shut-down.

I believe we can proactively challenge them by implementing a competency based educational system, paired with highly targeted systems of support.  A bold move like this will double-down on our belief that all students CAN learn.  A bold move like this will force us to think of students as individuals, on unique paths towards meaningful graduation.  A shift like this will relieve educator shame associated with not having every student at the same place by May of every academic year.  A move like this will add healthy pressure to educator teams to innovate.  Additionally, it will give educators freedom to try on new approaches with students.  As a correlation to the medical profession, it will mean having educators shift self perceptions, from being general practitioners to specialists trained to address unique symptoms of patients (students).

An approach to competency-based education is one in which students advance, based on mastery of content, rather than time on a topic/ in a grade.  This approach acknowledges that students are at different places in their understanding, yet gives them the agency to make decisions about their learning experience.  Support for students in this model is individualized, because it must be, accounting for unique learning needs.  

The National Center for Urban School Transformation (NCUST) identifies “focusing on understanding and mastery” as one of the key practices that improve student achievement for all students. Following robust research and experience in high performing schools, NCUST defined and delineated what a focus on mastery looks like. It is NOT “covering a set of concepts, skills, or pages during a period, day, or unit.” Instead, it is “focusing on getting students to understand specific content or skills.” CompetencyWorks estimates 6-8 percent of school districts in the United States are currently implementing competency-based education at some level. This shift is, and must, come. Now is a perfect time for us to make great strides in this direction.

As a nation, we’ve been consciously and subconsciously wedded to a factory model of education. We send students through lessons, units and grades as widgets on a factory belt. To break away from this, we will have to get increasingly comfortable with having students at different places and paces. But shifting autonomy to students holds promise for increased relevance and motivation for learning. If we are able to adequately support students along the way, students will make it through “learning pits” and have real reason to celebrate their success (Zaretta Hammond).  Beyond that, we will have complete assurance that our graduates are ready to take on some of the world’s most vexing challenges.

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