Competency-Based Education: One Key to Higher Ed’s Future

higher education

Education writer and administrator Matt Reed recently published a review of a recent book that focuses on the uncertain future of United States higher education. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press, The Great Upheaval provides a comprehensive examination of the institution of higher education. Authors Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt successfully mesh historical foundations with implications for the role that our colleges and universities will play over the next several decades. 

Something Reed zeroed in on caught my eye. As a consultant who supports institutions in both accreditation and competency-based education, I was intrigued that he noted the implications for both in a single observation: 

“The most intriguing prediction, to my mind, was around accreditation. They predict that the object of accreditation will shift from the institution to the student, with something like accreditors verifying that students have achieved certain defined competencies. Where they achieved them is much less important.”

This is spot on. In years past, the traditional model of post-secondary teaching and learning was established and unquestioned. Faculty taught from a lectern at the front of a classroom. We “imparted our knowledge” to students in the form of lectures. They came to class, sat passively feverishly taking notes, and regurgitated what they had heard in lectures on an exam. 

Exams comprised what were typically low-level objective items with a predominant blend of true/false, fill-in-the-bubble or short essay questions. In many cases, they were scored by machine for convenience. Student grades were based on attending class and passing exams. There was never any assurance that students were actually learning on a deep level. In other words, as long as they played by the rules, they progressed in their program and eventually graduated. 

Traditional Regulatory Oversight

Accrediting bodies have embraced that traditional educational model. Credits were assigned according to the Carnegie unit. Course content was easily understood by reviewing a course description or syllabus. Institutional quality was measured by metrics such as faculty qualifications and scholarly activity; student retention; and low student loan default rates.

While these factors are each important there is one metric that’s been mostly overlooked: To what extent are students actually learning? Enter the competency-based education (CBE) model.

Competency-Based Education (CBE)

This approach to teaching and learning has gained traction over the past decade. I’ve written on CBE several times before. As I explained in my piece The Time Has Come for Competency-Based Education

Competency-based education isn’t an easier way to learn or to earn a college degree–it’s just different.

With this model, teaching and learning are completely different from that of traditional classrooms. Students must actually demonstrate what they know and are able to do against a set of standards-based, measurable competencies. Faculty serve more as mentors and learning resources, as opposed to providing direct instruction. CBE requires everyone – students, faculty, and departmental staff to think very differently. 

In order to survive and thrive, I really do believe that we will see a greater emphasis from regulatory agencies on measurable student learning. Authors Levine and Van Pelt spoke to this in their book. This transition will require institutions to critically reexamine their long-held practices and likely make programmatic and infrastructure modifications. Some will be up to the challenge. They will gradually start building a competency-based design lean heavily toward making data-informed decisions. Sadly, other higher education institutions will not make this transition, from either a lack of desire or a lack of know-how. Those institutions that cannot adopt a more student-centric model will fail. 

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About the Author: Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher has expertise in higher education quality assurance, educator preparation, and competency-based education. A former public school teacher and college administrator, Roberta is now an educational consultant specializing in the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) and competency-based education. 

Twitter: @RRossFisher         Email: globaleducationalconsulting@gmail.com 

Top Graphic Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

CBE for Educator Prep Programs

CBE

What is Competency-Based Education (CBE)?

Competency-based education (CBE) is quickly becoming accepted as an effective way to facilitate powerful, authentic learning at all levels. Sometimes referred to as personalized learning, mastery learning, or proficiency learning, students must demonstrate what they know and are able to do, rather than just put in “seat time” and complete a prescribed set of courses. However, designing a solid CBE program is not as simple as it sounds–it requires a great deal of thought, understanding, and know-how.

There are some institutions that implement the CBE model very effectively. For instance, at the higher education level Western Governors University and Capella University use it successfully.

This model supports students’ learning in a rich way. As a result, graduates are able to reach their goals and achieve their dreams. The CBE model enabled them to demonstrate what they know at their own pace because it helps educators to personalize learning experiences.

The CBE model will be a major player in the educational arena over the next two decades at the P-12 level as well as at the collegiate level.

Essential Tenets for Educator Preparation Programs to Consider

There are some essential thoughts to consider for educator preparation programs thinking about adopting the competency-based education (CBE) model, and I shared some of those tenets in a commentary published in the Journal of Competency-Based Education entitled, Implications for Educator Preparation Programs Considering Competency-Based Education. 

The model helps students demonstrate what they know and are able to do. This is done within the context of a set of well-articulated competencies.  Moreover, teachers measure student learning through high-quality assessments. It’s a great example of academic excellence.

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About the Author: Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher has expertise in higher education quality assurance, educator preparation, and competency-based education. A former public school teacher and college administrator, Roberta is now an educational consultant specializing in the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). 

Twitter: @RRossFisher

Email: globaleducationalconsulting@gmail.com 

 

 

Top Graphic Credit: Deviantart.com

Competency-Based Education

Competency-Based Education

The competency-based education (CBE) model can be a great, innovative way to teach adult learners at the community college or university level, but it can also be quite appropriate for youngsters at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Here are a few basic tenets of CBE to consider:

Competency-based education isn’t an easy way to learn or to earn a college degree.

Instead, it’s a different way to learn. Rather than just sitting in a class and earning attendance points, learners really have to demonstrate what they know and are able to do through a variety of high-quality assessments.

True competency-based education is standards-based education.

A house must have a solid foundation in order to stand over time. Likewise, curriculum must be based on standards, and from those standards, competencies, learning objectives, and assessments are developed. As industry standards change, so must a competency-based curriculum evolve to ensure relevancy and currency.

Competency-based education is carefully planned and developed.

It is not a simple matter to create or switch to a competency-based educational model. It requires a great deal of thought, planning, training, and a commitment to various resources. Simply put, it’s not realistic for an institution to believe this can be created by one or two faculty members given extra teaching load pay over a semester or two. It requires systemic commitment and long-range strategic planning.

The curriculum found in a high-quality competency-based educational program comprises both breadth and depth.

A solid curriculum must be standards-based. In addition, a CBE curriculum can’t just “cover” certain key concepts and principles—this approach will not lead to deep, sustained learning. Instead, major content must be identified and embedded multiple times within signature learning experiences; they must be scaffolded throughout a program of study at increasing levels of complexity. Learners must be given multiple opportunities to understand and apply what they are learning in various contexts.

Self-paced learning is a cornerstone of the CBE model.

Rote memorization has been debunked by many over the years as an ineffective way to learn. Likewise, educators now acknowledge that lockstep teaching and learning does not meet the needs of individuals. An age-old approach known as “Teach to the Middle” is still often the norm in environments where class size is excessive and teachers need to work as efficiently as possible simply to manage their classrooms. However, this approach neglects the needs of students who are struggling, and it neglects the needs of students who have already mastered those skills and are ready to move on.

One of the most beautiful aspects of competency-based education is that it is based on a self-paced learner model: Students work at their own pace, taking as much or as little time as they need to understand, apply, and demonstrate their proficiency in the stated competencies and learning objectives. Learners are less frustrated; they feel empowered and more in control of their own progress.

The competency-based model lends itself well to online learning.

CBE certainly can work well in traditional face-to-face learning environments. However, it can work equally well in distance learning models. There are different nuances to consider in the planning stage, but CBE is adaptable to all learning environments.

What’s important is the strength of the curriculum, the learning resources, the quality of instruction, and the support given to learners. If the curriculum can be seen as the foundation of the house, then the other instructional elements can be viewed as the walls supporting the structure.

The quality of a competency-based program is heavily reliant upon the quality of its assessments.

In a competency-based model, learners demonstrate what they know and are able to do relative to specific learning objectives. They demonstrate this through a variety of high-quality assessments, frequently in the form of internally-created objective examinations, performance assessments, field-based assessments, and proprietary assessments.

If the curriculum is the home’s foundation, and the walls are comprised of learning resources, instructional quality, and learner support, assessments represent the roof. There must be direct alignment between what learners are taught and how their knowledge is measured.

Continuous, critical review of assessment data is essential.

Many educators throw around the term “data-driven” decision making these days, but few really understand what it means. A comprehensive assessment plan is essential to any institution, regardless whether it adheres to a competency-based educational model or not. There are many steps that need to be taken to ensure the quality, integrity, and continual improvement of the ways in which learner proficiency is measured.

The bottom line: It’s all about efficacy.

Regardless of the educational model being implemented, the strength of a program actually can best be determined by the sustained impact on the lives of learners. For example, are high school graduates accepted into college? Can someone with a CBE diploma or degree land a job of their choice?

Competency-based education is not just about learning in the moment; it’s about learning for a lifetime to serve the greater good.

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About the Author: Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher has expertise in higher education quality assurance, educator preparation, and competency-based education. A former public school teacher and college administrator, Roberta is now an educational consultant specializing in the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). 

Twitter: @RRossFisher

Email: globaleducationalconsulting@gmail.com 

 

 

Top Graphic Credit: Edvin Johansson on Unsplash

 

Competency-Based Education: Curriculum

Competency-Based Education

Competency-based education (CBE) is gaining traction in K-12 schools and higher education institutions across the United States, but it’s a very different way of approaching teaching and learning. Educators need to be aware of that before they commit to the CBE model. 

What is Competency-Based Education? 

Before we can understand what competency-based education is, it’s important to know what it isn’t: 

Competency-Based Education

Seat Time vs. Proficiency

Students attend class for a specified length of time in a traditional time-based model. In most K-12 schools it’s an academic year. In most colleges or universities, it’s for a semester lasting 15 weeks. Students attend class, participate and complete their assignments, and earn grades. At the end of that term, they receive a final grade and move on to the next grade level or next course. It’s very different with competency-based education. 

First, because students learn at different rates, seat time has very little relevance. Some can grasp material very quickly and are ready to move on, while others need more time to learn at their own pace. 

Second, competency-based education requires students to demonstrate what they know and are able to do. Learners earn credit and move on when they have shown they’re proficient in clearly defined competencies. Students demonstrate what they know through assessments. These assessments are closely aligned to learning objectives. 

Major Pillars of Competency-Based Education

There are six major pillars that anchor a solid competency-based education program:

  • Curriculum
  • Instruction
  • Assessment
  • Faculty Training & Support
  • Student Orientation & Support
  • Parent/Caregiver Orientation & Support (for P-12 Schools)

Educators must plan for all six of these pillars when building a competency-based education program. If not, student learning will suffer and as a result, school officials will likely abandon the model before really giving it a chance to succeed. 

 

Curriculum Basics in Competency-Based Education

There’s a reason why curriculum is the first pillar of CBE: It serves as its foundation or core, and it drives every other aspect of the model. Curriculum is the “what” of education. It’s what we want students to know—sometimes referred to as their knowledge base, their content knowledge, or their scope of learning. 

We have learned over the years that curriculum should be standards-based in order to provide students with a coherent, cohesive, and sequential body of content over time. However, not all states use the same standards. 

Elementary and Secondary Curriculum Standards

Some standards commonly used by P-12 schools include:

 Higher Education Standards

Colleges and universities typically rely on state-specific content standards or specialty professional association (SPA) standards such as those from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) for science teachers, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) standards for nurses, or other industry-specific standards such as the Microsoft Technical Certification standards.

 

First, the Standards. Then, the Competencies. 

After selecting the standards, educator develop the competencies. Similar to learning objectives, these competencies clearly define what students should know or learn and what we want them to be able to do with that knowledge. Competencies must be specific enough to be measurable. 

 

Competencies are the cornerstone of the entire curriculum ultimately. It’s important to get them right. 

 

Educators must first make sure that the curriculum is solid before moving on to the next pillar, that of instruction. In other words, it’s similar to building a new house: A contractor must take great care in laying the foundation, because the success of everything else depends on it. 

 

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About the Author: Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher has expertise in higher education quality assurance, educator preparation, and competency-based education. A former public school teacher and college administrator, Roberta is now an educational consultant specializing in the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). 

Twitter: @RRossFisher

Email: globaleducationalconsulting@gmail.com 

 

 

Top Graphic Credit:  education.ky.gov 

The Time Has Come for Competency-Based Education.

Competency-Based Education

Due to COVID-19, education in the United States has been turned on its ear, and it may be time to seriously consider the competency-based education model for K-12 and collegiate levels. For example: 

  • Students, parents, and school officials have endured sudden school closures as well as a mad scramble to convert to online learning platforms. 
  • Most states have opted to cancel high-stakes K-12 achievement tests. 
  • Several colleges are eliminating the ACT or SAT requirement for entrance in the fall. 
  • Some state departments of education are temporarily forgiving student teaching and licensure examination requirements for pre-service teachers who are slated to graduate from college this year so they can land jobs in the fall as fully certified teachers. 
  • Several schools have decided not to award letter grades of D or F but opted instead for a Credit or No Credit scale. 

Fall 2020 Faces Uncertainty

Higher education institutions such as the University of California and Harvard have already stated they likely won’t reopen the doors in the fall, with many more to decide after June 1. At the K-12 level, school district officials will strive to hold classes onsite, but the reality is that we simply don’t know what the 2020-2021 school year will look like, or for any school years in the near future for that matter. 

Status Quo No Longer Fits

Educators have structured our American way of learning to fit a time-based model. By and large, students attend classes, make passing grades, and then they move on. With a few exceptions, everyone in a class moves forward together at the same pace. Because of COVID-19, educators need to re-think how students learn and how their learning should be measured. The competency-based educational model is worth serious consideration. 

Competency-Based Education: Not Easier, Just Different

Competency-based education isn’t an easier way to learn or to earn a college degree–it’s just different. Rather than just sitting in a class and earning attendance points, learners really have to demonstrate what they know and are able to do through high-quality assessments. That approach doesn’t water-down expectations–in fact, it’s quite the opposite. 

Carefully Built on Solid Curriculum

Competency-based education is standards-based education. A house must have a solid foundation in order to stand over time. Likewise, curriculum must be based on standards. From those standards educators create competencies, learning objectives, and assessments. As industry standards change, school faculty must ensure relevancy and currency.

Competency-based education is carefully planned and developed. It is not a simple matter of schools deciding on a whim to switch to a CBE model. Faculty, administrators, and curriculum directors must give a great deal of thought and planning to the process. Simply put, it is not realistic for administrators to believe one or two faculty members can tackle a project of this magnitude. It requires systemic commitment and long-range strategic planning.

Self-Paced Learning is Essential Right Now

Self-paced learning is a cornerstone of the CBE model. Educators now acknowledge that lockstep teaching and learning does not meet the needs of individuals. This approach neglects the needs of students who are struggling, and it neglects the needs of students who have already mastered those skills and are ready to move on. One of the best aspects of competency-based education is that it is based on a self-paced learner model: Students work at their own pace, taking as much or as little time as they need to understand, apply, and demonstrate their proficiency in the stated competencies and learning objectives. Learners are less frustrated; they feel empowered and more in control of their own progress. Plus, CBE isn’t limited to a particular age group or grade level; it works equally well with elementary students as it does with those working on their doctorate. 

Competency-Based Education and Online Learning

The competency-based model lends itself well to online learning. CBE certainly can work well in traditional face-to-face learning environments. However, it can work equally well in distance learning models. There are different nuances to consider in the planning stage, but educators can build CBE to fit all learning environments. 

Assessment Quality is Paramount

The quality of a competency-based program is heavily reliant upon the quality of its assessments. In a competency-based model, learners demonstrate what they know and are able to do relative to specific learning objectives. They demonstrate this through a variety of high-quality assessments, frequently in the form of internally-created objective examinations, performance assessments, field-based assessments, and proprietary assessments. If the curriculum is the home’s foundation and instruction serves as the walls, then assessments represent the roof. 

Competency-Based Education: It’s Time to Take the Next Step. 

Competency-based education is NOT a shortcut nor an easy fix to serious school challenges during this difficult time. It’s also not a short-term solution but one that requires a long-term commitment. However, if educators design it carefully the CBE model can be a powerful way to increase student learning, achievement, and satisfaction. It’s time for them to take the next step. 

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About the Author: Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher has expertise in higher education quality assurance, educator preparation, and competency-based education (CBE). A former public school teacher and college administrator, Roberta is now an educational consultant specializing in the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) and CBE. 

Twitter: @RRossFisher

Email: globaleducationalconsulting@gmail.com 

            

 

Top Graphic Credit: Annie Spratt

 

Competency-Based Education to Support P-12 Student Success

The competency-based educational (CBE) model has been used successfully in higher education for the past two decades, and it is starting to gain national traction at the P-12 level. Several states, particularly on the east coast, have already come to appreciate its benefits. The Marzano Academy at Lomie G. Heard Elementary School, a new magnet charter school focusing on STEM will open its doors this fall under the CBE model. The state of Illinois currently has 10 school districts that will begin a pilot in academic year 2018-19 under the Illinois’ Competency-Based High School Graduation Requirements Pilot Program.

Within CBE, learners must demonstrate what they know and are able to do through carefully designed and calibrated assessments. Expectations are clear and well-defined, and there is thoughtful, purposeful alignment between curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

It’s All About Learning

This model is truly learner-centered: Seat time becomes less important than learning time. Students are able to drive their own learning and work at their own pace within structured guidelines. They are supported through meaningful feedback and mentoring.

Parents and caregivers feel more informed about their child’s progress under the CBE model. They know what their student is learning, their learning goals, progress, and their level of proficiency in each skill set. This helps them to partner with teachers to provide additional support at home.

Teachers recognize the positive impact the CBE model has on student learning and development. They are able to easily track the progress of each student on a daily basis, and they know exactly when a learner needs additional support.

School leaders are able to support teachers more effectively when they know exactly what their needs are. With the CBE model, they can provide strategic assistance through forming a mentoring network to support struggling students; through building school-community partnerships; through offering targeted professional development support, and the like.

Before making a decision to develop one or more programs based on the CBE model, educators must consider the following major questions:

  • Would CBE align with our school’s mission and vision?
  • What are the benefits of CBE for our students?
  • What are the challenges and caveats of CBE?
  • What are the basic steps needed to convert our current curriculum to the CBE model?
  • How can we train and support our faculty and staff so they could implement the CBE model successfully?
  • Could our school commit to a pilot lasting at least five years so we can fully measure the impact CBE has had on our learners?

The Bottom Line

Competency-based education is NOT a shortcut nor an easy fix to serious school challenges. However, if built correctly and maintained properly, the CBE model can prove to be a powerful way to increase student learning, achievement, and satisfaction.

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Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national expert in quality assurance, educator preparation, and empowerment-based learning. She supports educational institutions in areas such as accreditation, institutional effectiveness, competency-based education, and virtual teaching & learning.  Roberta can be contacted for consultations, webinars, and on-site workshops through her site (www.robertarossfisher.com). 

Supporting Learners in a Competency-Based Education Classroom

This is the fourth installment in a series of blog posts on the topic of competency-based education. Previous posts included: There IS a Better Way to Teach; What’s Under the Hood; and The Basics of CBE Curriculum Development.

How we teach is just as important as what we teach. In other words, instructional methods are just as vital to the learning process as the content being taught. Very few students learn by simply reading or absorbing material—if they did, we really wouldn’t need teachers.

Just as with traditional learning models, there are many ways P-12 and higher education faculty can instruct students within the competency-based education (CBE) model. However, the key here is to provide academic support in a way that helps learners attain essential content and ultimately demonstrate what they know and are able to do. Facilitation, as opposed to direct instruction, has been proven to be an effective way of providing this type of academic support primarily because by its very nature the CBE model creates a space for flexibility for instructors as well as for learners. Of course, face-to-face and online learning environments may require use of different facilitation models, but some good options to consider include:

 

Regardless of the facilitation model chosen, learning should be constant, and not time-dependent in a competency-based learning environment. In other words, learners should be actively engaged at all times but should not be forced to move in lockstep fashion with all other students. They should have the freedom and flexibility to learn at their own pace and in their own way—which is one reason why CBE is commonly referred to as personalized learning, although the two terms are not completely synonymous.

In the next blog installment, we will dive more deeply into the teacher’s role within a competency-based learning environment.

 

–rrf

 

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in educator preparation, accreditation, online learning, and academic quality assurance. An accomplished presenter, writer, and educator, she currently supports higher education and P-12 schools in areas such as competency-based education, teacher preparation, distance learning, and accreditation through her company, Global Educational Consulting, LLC.  

 

What’s Under the Hood: Major Components of Competency-Based Educational Programs

This is the second installment in a series of blog posts on the topic of competency-based education. In the first blog, I provided a basic overview of what competency-based education is, why I started using it with my own students, and other terms it’s frequently known by. Feel free to reach out to me if you have additional questions or need support implementing CBE in your school.

Regardless of whether you work in a P-12 school or at a higher education institution, there are six major pillars that anchor a solid competency-based education program:

  • Curriculum
  • Instruction
  • Assessment
  • Faculty Training & Support
  • Parent/Caregiver Orientation & Support (for P-12 Schools)
  • Student Orientation & Support (for all learner levels)

 

A strong, healthy CBE program must be built on these pillars, which makes preparation, planning, and collaboration extremely important. All six should be tied directly to the school’s mission and vision, and they should all be connected to each other to avoid a disjointed program.

I recommend using a backwards design model when developing your own competency-based education program—in other words, create a well-defined “picture” of what you want to accomplish—what is your final goal? What does success look like in your school? How would that be defined? Once you and your team know what you want to accomplish, you can start working backward from there and build out each of those six components.

Installment #3 of this series will focus on developing curriculum in a competency-based education program.

 

–rrf

 

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in educator preparation, accreditation and academic quality assurance. She currently supports higher education and P-12 schools in areas such as competency-based education, teacher licensure, distance learning, and accreditation through her company, Global Educational Consulting, LLC.  

 

 

There IS a Better Way to Teach & Learn: It’s Competency-Based Education

This is the first installment in a series of blog posts on the topic of competency-based education; feel free to reach out to me if you have additional questions or need support implementing CBE in your school.

I was a teacher for many years (elementary, middle, secondary) and while I loved working with my students, I sometimes felt as though I was constantly walking around in a darkened room looking for the light switch. I was completely committed to helping my students learn and to achieve their goals—I just wasn’t completely sure how to go about it. I found myself trying all sorts of methods with mixed levels of success, and what made it even harder was that there was never another teacher or principal in my building who could mentor and guide me to a better way of teaching. I knew creating a single lesson plan and teaching to the middle wasn’t effective—even though it was the way I was taught, and it was the way I was trained in my teaching prep program. Under that approach, I felt as though I was throwing spaghetti on the wall hoping something would stick, at least for those students in the middle of the bulls eye. Unless I got really lucky with my aim, those learning at the lowest and highest ends of the continuum rarely had their needs met. It’s not easy to admit, but it’s the truth. I experimented with my own version of individualized learning, but it was so limited in scope that I saw only limited results. However, despite the additional work and time required on my part, I felt excited and encouraged because I could see the impact those efforts were having on my students.

Later I tried project-based learning, and liked it. I enjoyed the notion of students being able to select their own topics of personal interest and to a certain extent driving their own learning. I used this primarily with gifted students but after three years concluded that individualized, project-based learning should be provided to students of all ability levels. It was only in the past few years that I was able to put a name with the approach I came to believe in and adopt as my personal teaching philosophy—it was competency-based education (CBE), which I’ve learned is also frequently referred to as: personalized learning, proficiency learning, performance-based learning, mastery learning, outcomes-based learning, or authentic learning.

Regardless what it is called, the bottom line is that in a CBE classroom:

  • Students demonstrate what they know and are able to do.
  • Expectations are measurable & clearly defined.
  • What students learn is more important than seat time.
  • Teachers serve as mentors or learning coaches to support student learning.
  • Instructional decisions are data-driven.

 

Installment #2 of this series will focus on the major components of a competency-based educational program.

 

–rrf

 

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in educator preparation, accreditation and academic quality assurance. She currently supports higher education and P-12 schools in areas such as competency-based education, teacher licensure, distance learning, and accreditation through her company, Global Educational Consulting, LLC.