Competency-based education (CBE) is an emerging approach in which “students progress at their own pace to the next level or grade level once they have demonstrated mastery of specified content knowledge and/or skills.”
Nationwide, CBE is gathering momentum as a way to prepare students for college and career. It promises deeper student investment in learning through personalization and a thorough mastery of subject matter. Implementation of a large-scale, high-quality CBE system requires strong, district-level leadership and collaboration. District leaders often set the tone and pace for their schools; provide guidance to students, teachers, families, and community on strategies for transitioning to CBE; and build a common understanding and consensus among stakeholders of the goals of CBE.
Two district leaders who have led the way in CBE and personalized learning are Dr. Devin Vodicka, Superintendent of the Vista Unified School District in Vista, California, and Dr. Dena Cushenberry, Superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township in Indianapolis, Indiana. Both leaders have set a vision for CBE that aligns with their personalized learning initiatives in their districts. In Vista, six schools implemented a model of CBE last year, and seven additional schools are adopting CBE during this school year. In Warren Township, schools are beginning their second year of implementation of personalized learning in four core subject areas: Math, English, Science, and Social Studies. Based on their implementation experiences so far, what lessons can these schools offer other districts seeking to transition to CBE?
1. Solicit community input and buy-in from the beginning.
Both Vodicka and Cushenberry cited the salient role of community input in shaping their CBE vision. Vodicka convened parents, students, educators, and community members at the beginning to help establish a vision and draft a plan for the district. Vodicka shared that this process helped him realize that students “wanted to be more active in their learning and wanted to be able to advance when they mastered something.” Once a plan was formulated, Vodicka shared the plan with the larger community to solicit input before finalizing the plan. Simultaneously, Vodicka led a group to define personalized learning and outline the transition.
Cushenberry explained, “You have to think about how best to communicate to your school community, your board, your parents because it’s a huge transition.” She noted that the communication involved a concerted effort to get parents on board. Speaking to the value of making time to set a strong plan that included communication strategies to all stakeholders, Cushenberry remarked, “We had to take time to understand what personalized learning was. It took us a while to wrap our head around it.”
The decision to transition to CBE is not unilateral; rather, it involves a consensus decision guided by district leadership. An initial step for district leadership is to create opportunities to explore and understand how CBE would assist the district in achieving its college- and career-ready goals for all students.
2. Have a clear plan.
To avoid the pitfalls of disorganization or aimlessness, Vodicka ensured that Vista had a clear, thoughtfully conceived, and strategic plan for how to implement CBE. This plan, known as the Blueprint for Educational Excellence and Innovation, guides the work of the district and reflects the collective wisdom of parents, students, staff members, and community members. Within this plan there are eight strategies, two of which center around personalized learning, including CBE.
Once the decision to pursue CBE has been jointly reached, the next step is to create an action plan. The key aspects of the plan should be clearly communicated to students, teachers, families, and the community.
3. Technology can be a catalyst for personalized learning.
Although technology can be a useful tool to provide students with individualized learning experiences, the transition to CBE does not exclusively depend on technology in the hands of every student. “You don’t need technology to personalize,” Cushenberry observed, “but you need technology to enhance the personalized learning of students, anytime, anywhere.” She added that the key to success is not the introduction of technology into the classroom but, rather, having a clear sense of the foundational curriculum and systems of personalized learning.
In Vista, technology is a powerful accelerator of CBE and personalized learning. Vodicka explained, “We can use technology to document progress, set goals, and make connections to real-world applications to demonstrate competency in a meaningful setting. Technology can shorten feedback loops between student production and the feedback related to demonstration of learning.”
District leaders must assess and evaluate the role of technology in the transition to CBE to ensure its use as a tool to complement development of student mastery.
4. Policy matters.
Both Vodicka and Cushenberry shared how policy can serve as both an enabling lever for and a limiting hurdle to implementing CBE. Vodicka observed, “Even districts that have made good progress with competency-based learning have not adapted all of their district policies to align with a competency based approach.” Policies around assessment, credit from out-of- school learning, and elimination of the traditional 100-point grading system are all examples of district-level policies that can impact CBE implementation. For example, Vodicka shared that Vista has been encouraging students to seek opportunities outside the classroom to demonstrate mastery of certain competencies, but has yet to formalize a policy on how to award course credit for those activities.
Policy can also provide new opportunities for personalized learning. Cushenberry stated that with ESSA, “you can do interim assessments, portfolios, so we will work with our state to see what it looks like [for CBE and personalized learning].”
Understanding the policy context of your state is a necessary first step in making your transition to CBE. In addition, district leaders need to work toward aligning district policy with the execution of CBE. This could include an audit of existing policies to ensure they allow flexibility for pursuing CBE.
Zachary Malter is a former policy research assistant at the American Youth Policy Forum.