Ask the Experts in Competency-Based Education: State Leaders

This blog is one in a series that shares lessons competency-based education leaders at the state, district, and school level. Each post describes CBE efforts and shares lessons for others to consider in their own development of competency-based education.

In recent years, many state leaders have grappled with the question, “How can we better prepare all students for college and careers?” 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.” While the specific implementation of CBE varies by state, district, and school, it generally involves eschewing the typical seat time requirements and course pacing, in favor of a personalized path for students, where they advance based on the mastery of specific content knowledge and/or skills. CBE is often paired with project-based learning, in which students demonstrate their deep understanding through hands-on projects instead of tests. State leaders have insight to share about ways to successfully adopt and implement competency-based education.

Two states that have been at the forefront of CBE implementation are Iowa and New Hampshire, where state leaders believe the approach has provided flexibility and personalization to maximize college and career readiness for all students. According to Sandra Dop, Iowa Department of Education, students are more likely to succeed “when [they] are working in small groups, everybody has responsibilities, and nobody can hide.” Paul Leather, Deputy Commissioner of Education in the New Hampshire Department of Education, believes that their CBE system has helped prepare more students for success in college and careers by promoting a deeper level of student engagement.

Given their positive experiences with CBE in their states, Dop and Leather offer recommendations for states looking to implement CBE.

1. Adopt policy changes to allow districts to experiment with CBE.

In both Iowa and New Hampshire, state policy changes allowed districts to experiment with CBE. In January 2012, after convening a state task force, the Iowa Legislature eliminated the use of the Carnegie Unit as the way to earn credit, a key policy recommendation for enabling CBE. This policy shift allowed the Department of Education to introduce and fund CBE in 10 districts (now nine) across the state as part of a pilot initiative.

Similarly, in 2005, the New Hampshire State Board of Education adopted a policy change related to seat time requirement. The policy changed the minimum standards for school approval and requires that all high schools have mastery of learning be the determination of credit. In addition, the state introduced changes to their accountability system and new performance assessments to support CBE. According to Leather, states can enable CBE through policy, but the implementation process, which involves collaboration with districts and schools, is critical to its success.

2. Provide flexibility for districts to customize their CBE implementation strategies.

Regarding implementation, Dop emphasized the need to provide flexibility for districts to tailor CBE policies and practices to their specific context. As Dop shared, “One thing we’ve learned from these nine districts is that each district will have its own pathway and each district will have to be allowed to make a lot of different decisions and head in a lot of different ways to get to the personalized learning,” she said. If districts are prescribed one pathway to CBE, without sufficient flexibility and autonomy to design their own system, then they will be more likely to reject CBE and stick with their traditional methods of instruction.  

3. Hire and support skilled leaders to support CBE.

Leather shared that the implementation process can take time. “You can’t expect that you’re going to be able to turn it around in a very short order.” He added, “If you don’t have skilled and qualified leaders to really support it, you’re not going to see the change happen.” It takes talented people with expertise in teaching, learning, and effective communication to oversee the implementation of CBE in a way that works for students, teachers, and parents. He also shared: “States can enable innovative practice, but schools, and districts, and local educators are the folks that will actually implement it. We need a partnership so that each of us are doing our part.” Within that partnership, leaders at all levels should be designing and implementing the CBE system collaboratively, working together on an ongoing basis.  

4. Focus on external communication and sharing successes.

CBE represents a dramatic shift from traditional teaching and learning. Both Leather and Dop spoke of the importance of continuously building public will. “Communication and [sharing] what’s going on early on is important,” said Dop. Identifying successes is also critical as states develop community buy-in and stakeholder support for CBE. “The [success] I like to point to is when I brought the state board chair to a small, rural community, at the Making Community Connections Charter School. [The board chair] was able to see a student graduation exhibition where the student had started in the school with only one interest, to fix his wrecked Toyota Supra, and had parlayed that through a personalized learning pathway and competency-based learning to a point where he had 24 credits of college credit by graduation, and he was advancing into becoming a CPA.” The student shared his story of how a system of CBE, which forced him to demonstrate mastery through a project of interest, increased his engagement in learning. “It was only then when [the board chair] realized students not only need internships, but they also need agency around what they’re learning,” said Leather.

Zachary Malter is the policy research assistant at the American Youth Policy Forum.  

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