State Policy Implications for Competency-Based Education Webinar Questions: Part 2 – Instructional Shifts, Non-Cognitive Skills, and Conditions for Innovation

This post is the second in a two-part series following the June 24 webinar, "State Implications for Competency-based Education Systems," where presenters are responding to questions submitted by participants. The first post in this series and a brief summary of the webinar are available online.

Question: Competency-based learning calls for more flexibility in terms of how content is delivered and an emphasis on project-based learning opportunities that often require interdisciplinary approaches. How have states thought about this type of instruction in competency-based systems and what implications might it have for teacher preparation, ongoing professional development, and even teacher credentialing?

Jennifer Davis: This question hits the nail on the head – competency-based education (CBE), when done best, requires an interdisciplinary approach to learning, which in turn requires an interdisciplinary approach to teaching. Many sites implementing CBE have re-defined the role of teachers as “learning facilitators” who work with other teachers in cohorts, camps, or teams that collaborate around the needs of a designated group of students, sometimes following those students from year to year to preserve continuity. Schools provide time and space for these teachers to plan together, and also often provide coaching to support teachers who are new to the system. Districts and states have a responsibility to ensure that professional development and teacher preparation programs are reflective of the new roles for educators. Some states are looking to redesign teacher preparation programs in an effort to make them more competency-based.

Diane Smith: This question addresses the sustainability of competency-based practices, ensuring that through recognized licensure pathways, we invest in and create the quality teachers that our students deserve.  With regard to teacher preparation, the teacher preparation programs are finding it difficult to find adequate sites with solid competency-based education practices in place for their student teachers.  Of course, we are not very far down the road in infusing competency-based practices in our pre-service coursework. This is something that current legislation and motivation is likely to change within the next 2-5 years. In addition, at the administrator level, one of our state universities offers a course in competency-based education for administrator licensure. We’re fortunate that the move to competency is happening at a time when schools are embracing learning communities for their teachers, as well as, in some cases, for their students! When professional growth occurs in a community of learners, there are great strides made and walls are replaced with transparent practices. We are finding that teachers use our available rubrics to self-evaluate where they are on the journey to understanding and implementing competency-based practices. Then, either as an individual, department, or team, they advocate for and participate in personalized professional development in the areas in which they need the most growth. As far as teacher credentialing is concerned, these conversations have occurred only between interested organizations and Schools of Education; no formalized proposals have surfaced.

Question: There is growing consensus that schools should recognize not only academic content mastery, but the additional knowledge and skills (e.g. critical thinking, communication, social and emotional, self regulation, self advocacy, etc.) required to become college and career ready.  What role can a competency-based system play in helping students develop these skills? Additionally, how have states/districts begun to develop competency-based assessments and what do they look like?

Jennifer Davis:  Some states, such as Maine, Oregon, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin have defined the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they require of students to include these cross-curricular skills, and have embedded them into their state-defined competencies and/or diploma criteria.  Many states are exploring how both formative and summative assessments in a competency-based system can play a role in ensuring students develop these skills.  Various models exist, ranging from stand-alone assessments (e.g., EPIC’s CampusReady and ThinkReady, MSLQ, QISA MyVoice, ETS Personal Potential Index, ACT ENGAGE, the Grit Scale, INCLASS, and so on) to integrated assessments (e.g., PISA for schools), to performance-based assessments. States in CCSSO’s Innovation Lab Network are beginning work intended to better understand the learning progressions that describe students’ progress through these skills and dispositions, and to design performance-based assessments that capture them. The Center for Collaborative Education is taking on similar work as well.

Diane Smith:  The beauty of teaching, modeling, encouraging, and measuring these other skills, whether they are called personal management, career-related, or college and career readiness, within the learning culture of a competency-based model, is that the necessary components of competency that support all students being successful in whatever areas are agreed-upon and identified. For example, consider a school that wants to hold students accountable for turning work in on time, for showing up on time to class, etc. These are factors that can be grouped under the personal management umbrella. In a competency-based environment, students know the target, know what it looks like to be successful, and are given opportunities, supports, and encouragement to get there. So, looking through the lens of competency, a student deserves to know what it means to demonstrate personal management, how it will be measured, and be involved in structured opportunities to demonstrate whether he or she is proficient in these skills, as well as the support and encouragement to make changes to get there, if necessary. This means we need to define, model, and teach these other skills too. Some, as we know from one state to another, can effectively be measured through assessments; others do not easily fit into an assessment box. In Oregon districts are required to report whether a student is proficient in grade-level standards and whether the student is making progress in reaching a proficient or higher level in those standards. Furthermore, the districts must separate academic achievement from non-academic factors, with only the academic elements being used to calculate GPA. This new law takes effect July 1, 2013.  We will watch how this new law changes the assessment landscape across the state.

Question: What special conditions allowed for a competency-based approach to flourish in your state or states you have worked with?

Jennifer Davis:  Flexibility in state policy; networks of advocates including school leaders, district superintendents, and state policymakers; constant attention to communication, building public will, and managing the change process.

Diane Smith: Oregon’s proficiency-based initiative is teacher driven and administrator and policy supported. The slow and purposeful nature of our work, going all the way back to the early 1990s has created deep and sustainable pockets of success that are driving others to hop on the band wagon. We lack an organized system to collect factors that reflect quantitative academic success across the state; however, the qualitative data, and those quantitative indicators that have been attributed by local education agencies (LEAs) to proficiency implementation reflect a grass-roots momentum that feels sustainable.

Andrew Valent is a Program Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.

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