Competency Based Education: An Update

NOTE: In a previous post I wrote about Competency Based Education or Competency Based Learning entitled “A Preview of Competency Based Learning“. In this post, I fleshed out the background of what the CBE model would look like in contrast to the current model (the Carnegie Model) that most districts, including ours, employ. While you do not necessarily need that background to gain something from this post, you may nonetheless find it helpful to review it. It can be found here.

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On December 3, 2015, the Superintendent and School Committee held a public information session where Ms. Taymore further elaborated on her vision of CBE within Melrose Public Schools. The powerpoint presentation she gave can be found here. I encourage you to open and review it as you read through my thoughts from her presentation.

The first thought that jumped out at me is how passionate Ms. Taymore is for Universal Design for Learning or UDL. For those not well versed in UDL, and I will admit I was not, the National Center on Universal Design for Learning defines UDL as

“…a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn.

UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone–not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.”

The National Center on UDL points us to the CAST.org website where a more indepth explanation, including the research behind UDL, is presented for mass consumption. I encourage all who are interested to review this information as I found it relevant to our own children.

Superintendent Taymore went on to outline how MPS already individualizes student learning within the classroom through Individual Support Teams or ISTs, content based acceleration and grade acceleration. A limitation currently in MPS is how these are all very staff intensive, and while tailored to each individual student, the protocols are still being adapted.

CBE, should we as a district adopt it, would present a more systemic, standardized way to accommodate all students wherever they are in their current level of mastery of a topic. Furthermore, there would exist the ability to condense subject matter based on previous knowledge for students enabling them to move more quickly to new content for mastery. Under this system, one can envision students moving through subjects at their pace, providing schedule flexibility and ultimately, more opportunities for students.

For CBL to move forward within Melrose Public Schools, everyone, from parent and guardian to City Hall would need to support this change. Indeed, CBL is a complete philosophical change- we would exiting the long standing classroom cohort model to move to a system where individual families and particularly their students are able to take charge of their education. All students would be able to move to more challenging subject matter as they are able, rather than when the classroom moves to said subject matter. At the secondary level, students may have the opportunity to not only complete their Mass Core requirements for graduation, but pursue non-traditional subject matter suited to their individual interests.

There are challenges in addition to seeking public approval, however. Where there are individual schools who have made this transition, no district within the Commonwealth has switched to the CBL model. And while we do have other New England states to guide us as we go forward, namely Maine and New Hampshire, we would be in the unique position of being a trailblazer here in Massachusetts.

There are legal questions as well which might require action from Beacon Hill to rectify. Legally, students are required to have a set amount of ‘structured learningeach year (MGL 27.03 and 27.04). How does DESE define ‘structured learning’ and would CBL qualify? Furthermore, how do we reconcile a student who has completed their coursework requirements for graduation under CBL by the end of their 11th grade year?

Challenges within the district would exist as well. New policies and procedures would need to be established, tested and revised. Mastery standards for each level of content and subject matter would need to be determined. Expectations of outcomes from each segment of CBL must be consistent and known, meaning that from parent to student to teacher to administrator, everyone must be on the same page regarding what we expect a student to learn and master at each level. This begs the question of how the district would define ‘mastery’ and whether or not proficiency is mastery.

We have a lot to learn, plan and process as we go forward. The School Committee gave permission to the Superintendent to form a CBE Taskforce, with the intention of planning next steps. I am honored to announce that along with School Committee member Jessica Dugan, I will be on this task force.

For more information on Competency Based Learning, I encourage all who are interested to reach out to the Superintendent directly.

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