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.

–rrf

 

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in accreditation, quality assurance, teacher preparation, and empowerment-based learning. She supports educational institutions and non-profit agencies in areas such as quality assurance, accreditation, competency-based education, and educator preparation.  Roberta also writes about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations, webinars, and on-site workshops through her site (www.robertarossfisher.com). 

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Competency-Based Education: Academic Excellence in Action

 

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.

I’ve worked in institutions using traditional learning models and spent 10 years working in one that employs the CBE model effectively. I’ve really come to appreciate the level of learning that takes place in a CBE model, and I’ve seen over the years how effective it is in supporting students’ learning. I’ve celebrated with students and their families who reached their goals and achieved their dreams because they were in an environment that enabled them to show what they knew and then move on at their own pace. CBE, when structured properly, helps educators to personalize learning experiences. I predict 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.

There are some essential thoughts to consider for 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. 

Helping students to demonstrate what they know and are able to do within the context of a set of well-articulated competencies and measured through high-quality assessments is certainly one example of academic excellence.

–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. She can be reached at: globaleducationalconsulting@gmail.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.  

 

Looking for Innovation? Think CBE.

Thinking about adopting a competency-based educational (CBE) model? This 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 is not an easy way to learn or to earn a college degree. Instead, it is 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 is 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. As previously stated, 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 externally-created 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. As with curriculum development, 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. Irrespective 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 and those they interact with in their chosen profession. For example, do graduates from an educator preparation program demonstrate a positive impact on their P-12 students’ learning and development? Do graduates from a medical school demonstrate a significant impact on improving the quality of their patients’ lives?

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

–rrf

 

 

The Basics of CBE Curriculum Development

This is the third installment in a series of blog posts on the topic of competency-based education. Previously, I provided an overview of what competency-based education is, why I started using it with my own students and other terms it’s frequently known by, as well as the six major components found in a healthy CBE program. Feel free to reach out to me if you have additional questions or need support implementing CBE in your school.

As a reminder from the previous blog installment, 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)

 

An extremely important aspect of CBE is its curriculum—the “what” of education. It’s what you 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 schools and not all states can agree on which specific standards to use (another blog for another time). Some standards commonly used by P-12 schools include:

 

Higher education institutions typically rely on state-specific content standards or specialty professional association (SPA) standards such as those from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), or other industry-specific standards.

Once the standards have been selected, it’s time to create a set of competencies, which clearly define what students should know or learn and what we want them to be able to do with that knowledge. There should be a clear linkage between the standards and the competency statements. Those competencies form the cornerstone of the whole curriculum ultimately, of the whole program.

After the competencies have been generated, specific, measurable learning objectives (sometimes known as skill statements) must be written. These learning objectives help define the curriculum to a granular level—it’s kind of like an inverted pyramid where you start off from a macro perspective and gradually become more and more defined, narrow, and micro:

Inverted Pyramid

 

So to summarize, the basics of developing curriculum in a competency-based education program include:

  1. Select the standard(s): WHAT do we want students to know?
  2. Write the competencies: What do we want students to be able to DO with their knowledge?
  3. Write the learning objectives: How can students SHOW (demonstrate) what they know?

 

Now, the process is more complex than it sounds—there are specific processes and procedures involved in writing quality competencies and learning objectives—but this is an overview.

Installment #4 of this series will focus on building an effective instructional model 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.  

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.  

 

 

Competency-Based Education Resources for P-12 School Districts

Source Annotated Comments
US Department of Education Provides a working definition of CBE as well as information about specific states and school districts that have piloted the CBE model.
The Glossary of Education Reform Provides a good overview of the CBE model particularly in the context of P-12.
Missouri Learning Standards Provides a roadmap for what all students should know and be able to do at each grade level.
Creating High-Quality Assessments Adapted from the CAEP Evaluation Framework, this document provides a checklist for educators to use when creating their own performance-based assessments.
Competency-Based Education Toolkit Provides a lot of very useful, practical information for school districts interested in creating their own CBE framework.
Chocolate Chip Cookie Rubric This rubric serves as a great springboard for conversation about assessment criteria, performance indicators, levels of competency, etc. Use it with teachers, parents, and students.
CompetencyWorks: Learning from the Cutting Edge A good source for various aspects of CBE.

 

If your school is interested in piloting the CBE model and needs additional support, please contact: 

  • Roberta Ross-Fisher, PhD (globaleducationalconsulting@gmail.com)
  • Twitter: @RRossFisher
  • LinkedIn: Roberta Ross-Fisher