A Preview: Competency Based Learning

NOTE: This is meant to preview what Competency Based Learning, sometimes referred to as Competency Based Education and herein abbreviated CBL. CBL was first mentioned by Superintendent Taymore at the September 15, 2015 School Committee meeting (time in video: 1:32:14) here. A presentation of the current education model and possible paths forward was presented by Superintendent Taymore on October 6th before the Melrose School Committee can be viewed here . The accompanying powerpoint presentation can be downloaded here.  

Thursday, December 3, 2015 at 6 PM, Melrose Public Scho0ls will host a public forum for CBL at the MVMMS auditorium. I strongly encourage all to attend.

Before we dive into what CBL is, let us review the current education model to best parse out the differences. The current model of education dates back more than 100 years, to 1909 when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching was able to codify the ‘classroom advancement’ model, often referred to as the Carnegie Model. This is the system we are all familiar with- students of an age are presumed to be of similar ability and knowledge or competency and as such move forward as a class as subjects are mastered.

Consider the standard bell curve as applied to the range of competencies found within the average classroom. The Carnegie model seems to work for the majority of the students within the center of the curve. However, those students at the left and right end of the curve, i.e., those who have mastered the subject early or those who have struggled to with the subject matter relative to their peers, present challenges ill-addressed by Carnegie. Educators have long been challenged with how best to teach these students, while still moving the overall class forward. Indeed, the Carnegie model can be drilled down to a ‘time-on-subject-matter’ model, where at the end of the time period, such as a school year, all students within the grade are moved forward to the next competency, despite their individual mastery level.

Competency Based Learning moves away from the ‘time-on-task’ approach to a mastery of subject approach. Ideally, CBL meets students where they are in terms of subject matter mastery. Under CBL, mastery and rigor describes not only what a student show ‘know’, but what a student should be able to ‘do’ as well.

In addition, the US Department of Education expounds the positives of CBL, including granting students the flexibility to move through their education at their pace, in their own time, and not necessarily on traditional school grounds. Furthermore, there is also the expectation that students who have such flexibility are more engaged, taking a more active role in their own education. While the DOE suggests teachers would better be able to identify specific learning needs of students earlier, enabling better targeted interventions, it is all-too-easy to envision these same educators struggling to jump from student to student as they help individual students and their needs.

The state of New Hampshire codified CBL across K-12 in 2005, leaving the ‘how’ of conversion from Carnegie to CBL up to individual municipalities and districts. At the secondary level, New Hampshire school districts were tasked with developing competencies and gradation of units or credits for achieving each competency and graduation. Maine codified CBL in 2012 while Massachusetts has not codified CBL.

So what does this look like within NH schools? Many of the NH school districts employ a blended learning approach, combining online and in-classroom teaching. Other schools are online-only, using tools like Edmentum or other pre-packaged systems to effect CBL. Alternatively, at the Manchester School of Technology, a vocational secondary school, students are given cross-disciplinary projects designed to show mastery of competencies.

“Teachers give students who are able to demonstrate mastery more quickly more complex tasks within the same project. Students whose projects do not demonstrate mastery of particular competencies may be assigned additional face-to-face tutoring or online practice exercises at the school’s learning lab to fill in those gaps before they move on to new projects.”

From EducationNext: New Hampshires Journey Toward Competency Based Education 

In Maine, some schools are looking at using achieving mastery of competencies to remove the needs for final exams. At Bonny Eagle High School, teachers are using end of unit assessments in place of a cumulative end of semester final. These assessments are not limited to the standard paper and pencil exam, but may be an oral exam or a project. 

There are challenges to implementing CBL, however. Getting teachers and staff trained and moving together can be a major hurdle. There needs to be consistent agreement on the competencies – what they look like, how they are taught and assessed – across schools and the district. To transition effectively, professional development will be needed and infrastructure/materials/curriculum must be reviewed to ensure they meet best practices and needs. In addition, there are legal issues to contend with, as the Commonwealth requires 180 days/990 hours for high school students (603 CMR 27.03) to graduate. How would Melrose Public Schools reconcile blended or off-campus learning with current MA General Law?

We are at the beginning of this discussion. The next step is the public forum and the formation of a task force to assess how to tackle these and other unforeseen questions relating to transitioning to CBL from Carnegie. I look forward to seeing you all Thursday evening.