Promising Practices in Competency-Based School Districts: Restructuring Districts to Allow for Personalization

The College and Career Readiness and Success Center and the American Youth Policy Forum recently co-hosted the webinar, “Promising Practices and Considerations for Districts in Competency-Based Education.” The Webinar brought together leaders in two districts that have restructured into a competency-based system—Superintendent Thomas Rooney from the Lindsay Unified School District in  California and Assistant Superintendent Linda Laughlin from RSU 18 in Maine. Dr. Matthew Lewis and Dr. Jennifer Steele of the RAND Corporation shared common enablers and challenges districts using competency-based approaches have dealt with across the country.

The discussion touched on several different aspects of competency-based education, but one point that was emphasized throughout all presentations was the need to rethink school structures to truly personalize learning. In order to provide diverse pathways that allow students to move at their own pace and demonstrate proficiency, schools should be organized by demonstration of mastery, rather than age or grade. This presents a number of challenges such as ensuring that student groupings are appropriate and flexible and that teachers have the ability to identify and teach students at different levels in the same classroom.

Through their research, Lewis and Steele found that successful districts have made use of unique online resources to provide content in an anywhere, anytime setting. They have also re-envisioned the role of the teacher to leverage technology to diagnose students, dynamically regroup students based on that data, and provide supports to ensure that students are on pace. Learning Management Systems such as “Educate” (used in RSU 18 and Lindsay Unified) support teachers in grouping students by tracking  students’ progress in all competencies over several years. Lindsay Unified and RSU 18 shared some approaches to regrouping students. Rooney discussed how Lindsay Unified uses flexible scheduling to allow students to spend more time on specific topics. They have developed a flexible method of regrouping that can change on a daily basis and allows for students to either engage in different content or physically go into another room. Laughlin explained that grouping should not be based solely on progress standards.  In RSU 18, schools use “Educate” to understand where students are in their learning and group them based on the standards, student interest, and learning styles. In order to encourage student agency and the ability for them to develop their own pathways, interests and learning styles were also used to create a truly personalized environment.

While grouping students can be an effective instructional strategy, there are concerns that grouping is just another form of tracking and that students who are lower performing will be placed in lower level classes. In order to avoid tracking, RSU 18 advances students individually and not in cohorts, giving students the opportunity t to identify their strengths as a certain type of learner. Laughlin argued that in order to make this an equitable system, schools must take advantage of anywhere, anytime learning and allow students to demonstrate proficiency in multiple ways. Rooney argued that while achievement gaps might increase initially as schools identify content areas in which students are lacking, over time, this system will allow those students to fill those gaps and become more engaged in their learning. He also made the point that our current system oftentimes allows students to advance despite major gaps in their learning and that it is more damaging to advance under-prepared students through the system than it is to address gaps in the K-12 system. The bottom line is that competency-based systems provide a more transparent measure of student learning that more clearly illuminates the equity gaps that currently exist and can provide personalized learning to all students to close those gaps.  

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

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