It is possible to debate each and every line of the recent Washington Post article by Valerie Strauss, but I know at some point, the vast majority will stop reading. Instead, let’s focus on the most egregiously incorrect statements made.

Starting with this one:

It’s called “competency-based learning” and it’s the newest thing in education.

False and False.

It might be called competency-based learning, however, I question the validity of discussing CBE, as Strauss’ article does, in conjunction with Common Core-aligned testing, Race to the Top, and NCLB, as they have virtually nothing to do with CBE. This article uses these mandates and controversial education policy to attempt to make loose connections between the use of CBE and national attempts at education reform.

Furthermore, this article fails to mention that No Child Left Behind was repealed in December of 2015—along with its singular focus on high stakes testing as a means to measure student success. This is momentous, and it’s opened the doors for a new era of personalized, student-centered learning in the United States under the reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in the form of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). We need CBE to more effectively drive personalized learning and ensure the success of every student in US schools.

CBE is absolutely not the “newest fad” in education. Not even close. A quick search for scholarly articles related to CBE turns up myriad literary reports stemming from the 1970s. The National Institute of Education points to the 1972 Oregon State Board of Education as the primary catalyst for state-level policy makers and administrators across the nation to begin formulating and implementing policy and procedures that were specifically coined “Competency Based Education.”

And even earlier than that, Educational Leadership, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), cites the Southern States Cooperative Program in Educational Administration (SSCPEA) as providing the model for Competency-Based Education that they developed in the 1950’s.

Whether the 1950s or the 1970s, neither decade represents the “newest” educational trend in this millennium. Not even close.

Additionally, Career and Technical Education (CTE) have used workforce competencies to identify the specific skills that students will need to demonstrate as a means of assessing student mastery.  Workforce competencies have been utilized in industry and similarly in schools teaching courses that contain industry standards for years.

By that understanding, using competencies to measure and ensure student learning is highly effective, but it’s not new.

Change is hard but failing is harder

One of the greatest missed opportunities in Strauss’ article is further research. I have heard the “dig in your heels and question change” aspects presented by every teacher who’s been worn down by unfunded mandates and countless educational initiatives that don’t pan out. Change is hard. A failing education system is harder.

But there is so much on the line. We need to break free from the constraints of the traditional education model that prevents our students from graduating with skills that prepare them for college and their career.

The increased interest in CBE throughout the nation is a direct result of data that indicates most educational models fail to prepare students adequately for college—an estimated 60% of new college students require remedial classes. Which, in turn, cost the student more money and increase the length of their study, thereby increasing the likelihood they won’t complete their degrees.

How do we improve the current education model to meet the needs of our students without innovation and change?  We need to take necessary measures to ensure that students and educators are supported in the transition to CBE.

Transitioning to CBE and authentic learning

In the move to competency-based education, educators need robust training and a continuing support structure fostered by school administration and change leadership of the district. The move to competency-based education is not a simple one. But that doesn’t mean CBE isn’t the right answer for improving education. Teachers just need better support, training, and technology to transition successfully to a system that engages learners, allows for personalization and individualization, and prepares students for the next step.

Becoming competency-based is more than just “unpacking standards” as Wiggins and McTighe advise in Understanding by Design, which numerous schools have already used to realign their curriculum to address CCSS and identify student learning outcomes.

Courses cannot simply be repackaged from traditional curriculum. Schools need to be willing to redesign curriculum that puts students at the center and incorporates multiple opportunities to learn and apply new skills.  Student demonstration of mastery cannot be limited to traditional forms of assessment.  Assessing student mastery of competencies looks a lot like meaningful, community-integrated projects that give students an authentic experience and connection between what they are learning about in school and the real world.

Some of the best CBE practices have educators and administrators working with the community to increase authentic learning experiences that break through traditionally siloed assignments given for the sake of having assessments to score.

CBE allows students to engage in their learning in a way that utilizes intrinsic motivation to ensure student success. This does not happen overnight. Schools transitioning to CBE need to build professional development for educators around inquiry, then teachers won’t feel “troubled” as Strauss’ article accuses. Instructors in CBE need to be equipped with highly effective strategies that are proven to elevate student success by developing students’ critical thinking and collaboration skills through inquiry, project-based learning, authentic assessment and performance-based assessment.  According to KQED’s MindShift, the chief obstacle to an inquiry-based system is us. The world that is opening up requires faith that something new, and better, is being born, but in the short term, it can feel like it’s falling apart.

Competency-based education, when done correctly, is not based on tests, but based on demonstration of mastery through real-world application of skills and learning. CBE certainly isn’t “new,” but it does put the student in the center of their learning in a way that traditional education models that have been used since the 19th century fail to do. Anyone who questions the validity CBE and its ability to engage and enable student learning and preparation for success in college and career, are either unprepared to deliver a high-quality, effective CBE program, or have not stepped into today’s schools to witness the disengagement and challenges faced by modern learners.

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