Competency-Based Education: Lessons for Adoption
  • By admin
  • June 21, 2019

By Grace Shelton



CBE: What it is and Why it Matters

Competency-based education (CBE), also referred to as mastery education or proficiency-based education, upends our traditional education system and seeks to provide students with a school and classroom dedicated to ensuring their success in a particular area before moving on to more rigorous coursework. This model, in theory, works so that no student is left behind or stops learning material simply because the school bell rings or their age suggests what grade they should be receiving or what content they should be taught. The system works so that students strive to achieve “proficiency” instead of traditional grades. Once students achieve this, they move on to the next course of study. Some high-achieving students may move on relatively quickly, while others will take more time. The bottom line is that no student is forced to abandon their learning of one subject because the day or school year is over, and no student is forced to spend precious time on something they already understand.

A recent report by ExcelinEd in partnership with Getting Smart examines the way states are beginning to make a shift toward CBE and away from traditional grading systems. The report highlights successful pilot programs and gives key lessons and takeaways for other states seeking to adopt this approach. Not all approaches are successful, however, as this Hechinger Report article discovers. In the end, CBE is an interesting prospect for the future of education, but there are very important steps states must take in order to ensure a successful transition, and institutions of higher education cannot be abandoned in the discussion on upending traditional grading systems.

According to the ExcelinEd report, CBE is primarily driven by the need of our current workforce. The report states that 4 in 5 employers report that recent high school graduates are not meeting their standards, and have gaps in preparation that require additional training. Additionally, students themselves feel these gaps and have indicated through surveys that they feel unprepared for both college and the workforce.  This gap is even felt by postsecondary institutions. The report states that more than 50% of students entering two-year colleges and 20% of students in four-year universities are placed in remedial classes. CBE aims to remedy these gaps by placing students in a system of learning where they can only advance to higher levels after demonstrating that they are indeed proficient in their current level of study.

CBE students advance upon mastery, demonstrate explicit and measurable competencies, are assessed in meaningful ways, receive timely and differentiated support, and develop important skills outside of academics. While the adoption of CBE primarily depends on the schools, there are many ways states and districts can support CBE. As of 2016, more than 40 states have made some policy progress toward adopting CBE practices. However, CBE is complex, and fundamental changes are needed in diplomas and credits. Students must continue to be held accountable, and schools and districts must work with multiple stakeholders to ensure the success of CBE adoption.

Maine: A Cautionary Tale

Maine provides a cautionary tale for states that wish to adopt CBE practices in their school systems. Although well intentioned, the plan was never successfully implemented in Maine and a serious lack of collaboration and careful planning is to blame. To begin, the state began the process of CBE after seeing successes in Alaskan school districts. Maine wanted to improve equity and ensure all kids were graduating with the skills they needed to succeed. Soon, the state began offering schools up to $50,000 to subsidize CBE trainings. Things took a turn, however, when funding ceased just a year and a half later due to budgetary issues. CBE, therefore, was sporadic at best. Some classes used traditional grading methods, while others followed the CBE format to indicate mastery. Students and families began to worry that colleges would struggle to understand their applications based on these grading discrepancies. Parents worried their students would no longer qualify for scholarships with this alternative method. Soon, residents began to urge lawmakers to slow down and let districts decide whether to implement CBE. Teachers lost interest in the concept, believing it to be driven by foundations and interest groups, or in other words, “outsiders”. Soon, lawmakers agreed that their investments in CBE did not have the impact they expected on low-income students and communities of color, and the issue lost traction.

Perhaps Maine would have succeeded had they used pilot programming in the state, or worked with higher education institutions to ensure students that their grades would still be valid. Perhaps more collaboration was necessary to engage teachers and school leaders as well as other stakeholders.  In this particular instance, a shift in educational priorities happened too fast, and it ultimately failed. Other states, however, have demonstrated some success in CBE.

Success Stories: Utah, Idaho, and Florida

Utah’s Juab School District has recently seen an uptick in graduation rates, partially due to the inclusion of CBE practices. So where did Utah go right where Maine went wrong? It wasn’t smooth sailing at first. A few years ago, the same district attempted to use CBE practices with very little professional development or instructions, and saw the process fail. However, it was revamped with new direction. District leaders made changes to class time, the grading system, and the use of iPads. However, many point to relationship building as the biggest success. All educators were operating under the same driving philosophy: that all students should be able to succeed and the school day should be structured in a way that allowed for that. They avoided Maine’s controversy by adopting a competency-referenced model instead of competency-based. Students could get credit even if they hadn’t completely reached mastery. On the question of college admissions, seventy-nine institutions made official statements that CBE grades would not hinder applications. Students then no longer felt worried that their chances of getting into college would be hurt by the district adoption of CBE, and successes began to flourish. This focus on higher education alignment with K-12 schools is a key takeaway from Utah’s success.

In Idaho, the state did several years of groundwork before even beginning their pilot program for CBE. Governor Otter ordered the state board to form a task force to improve educational outcomes. The task force included every educational stakeholder under the sun—from the PTA to Senators and associations—everyone was included in the discussion. The approach began with a statewide awareness campaign and a committee of educators committed to identifying potential problems and solutions. The key lessons from Idaho are those of intentional messaging and collaboration. The conversation was always focused on student outcomes, something each stakeholder felt comfortable getting behind.

Lastly, Florida also utilized collaboration and communication in their pilot programming of CBE.  In particular, the collaboration among districts and state leaders, as well as state-based advocacy organizations, allowed for more successful CBE programming, as per the report. No matter who was asked, each stakeholder was able to articulate the same key messages about goals and benefits of CBE. Stakeholders were able to focus solely on student outcomes and achievement. Furthermore, Florida had a deliberate emphasis on pilots as a way to inform identification of the current policies in place that might hinder the progress of competency-based education. Participants in the pilot program were responsible for identifying policy barriers so that legislators could explore policy options to mitigate those barriers before expanding the program to the entire state.

What Happens Next?

Florida, Utah, and Idaho all had the most important aspect of CBE adoption in common: it didn’t look the same in any state. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to education system overhauls like CBE. Each state must work within its own parameters and with its own unique stakeholders to collaborate, frame, and unite along a common mission and goal for CBE success.

As mentioned before, CBE is complex. It dramatically shifts the way we view grades and the structure of the school day. Therefore, change like this has to happen slowly. CBE might take time to change schools, but one thing remains true: students should be provided with the skills necessary to succeed after school, and CBE is one way that can be achieved.