The state of New Hampshire is contemplating a shift to competency based learning. As reported by Amanda Gokee for the Boston Glode, the shift is facing pushback from many educators.
The pushback is not surprising. It has only been five years since Maine gave up their own statewide CBL initiative (implemented there under the name proficiency-based learning).
Competency based learning offers some solutions to long-standing education issues, yet proponents have so far failed to solve some of the unique problems it raises.
Why competency based learning?
Public education has always measured out education in terms of time spent in a classroom (known both as Carnegie Units and seat time). The problem with this is obvious; if a student masters material in one month, why keep them sitting there for nine? If Pat and San take wildly different amounts of time to master the material, does it make sense to keep them in class the same amount of time?
In our education system, time in school is the constant, and learning is the variable. Why not, some critics suggest, flip that so that learning is the constant and time is the variable?
Competency based education, known by a variety of names, is based on that flipped model. Proficiency based, competency based, and way back in 1968, learning for mastery. Once a student demonstrates mastery of a particular skill or piece of knowledge, that student can move on. In place of traditional grades, student reports show a long list of specific competencies that they have (or have not yet) achieved.
Some versions even allow students to demonstrate mastery based purely on experience outside the four walls of the classroom. The most extreme versions envision a ledger of competencies stored on blockchain, a digital resume linked to the individual for life.
Much about CBL makes sense. And yet, there are some aspects with which all CBL systems struggle—not always successfully.
There are two issues here. One is defining mastery itself. If the desired competency is sinking a basket from the foul line, what do we need to see to declare mastery. Sinking five shots out of five? Three out of five? Five successful baskets no matter how many tries it takes? Set the standard too low and you may be certifying mastery that isn’t really there. Set the bar too high and you begin to limit the number of students who can ever hope to succeed.
Assessing mastery of more complex tasks is more problematic. If the standard is to drive down the court past defenders to shoot a layup, do we assess that skill in its entirety, or break it down into components? Does mastery of the components guarantee mastery of the whole piece? How exactly do we determine that a student has mastered writing an insightful paper about a work of classic literature?
The tighter the focus, the easier to assess the standard, but the result is a mile-long list of competencies. Pull back for larger pictures, and the list becomes shorter, but the standards become harder to assess accurately.
The Bare Minimum
If your system simply notes that a student has either mastered a competency or not, what you have is a pass-fail system, a system that describes the bare minimum students must do to earn the credential.
It would be great to live in a world in which students pursued just as much education as they could for the sheer love of learning, but as Jack Schneider and Ethan Hutt describe in detail in their new book Off the Mark, and as many classroom teachers can verify, we live in a world in which students are focused on the grade, the credential, the token that they are supposed to be able to trade for a good job and a prosperous life. In that world, when you tell students what bare minimum they must accomplish to get the grade, that’s what they will do.
And in a system in which the bare minimum gets the same “reward” as going the extra miles, students will question why they should bother with the extra mile.
That can be addressed by creating gradations of proficiency, like a scale of 1 through 4 to represent “struggling to meet standard” up through “exceeds standards.” At that point, however, you have essentially reinvented grades.
Parent and student reaction
CBL systems meet great resistance not just from educators, but from parents and students. Maine’s experiment met with widespread frustration, particularly among parents of high achieving students. How can my child boost their GPA, class rank, and college acceptance chances when they don’t have a traditional report card with traditional grades? What am I supposed to make of this long list of competencies? And why should my child bust their butt to excel when they get the same “marks” as a student who has done the bare minimum?
On the other end of the scale, we find students and parents who are concerned about managing to meet that minimum, creating additional pressure to keep lowering that competency bar.
The learning journey
Learning is a journey, and assessing student progress on that journey has always been one of the fundamental challenges of schooling. It’s impossible to directly measure what’s happening inside the brains of young humans.
The traditional approach settles for keeping students on that journey for a set amount of time, taking regular rough measurements along the way and assuming that sitting in a seat for 180 days must surely result in some sort of learning. CBL focuses on more granular measurements, but takes them only once. And their very granular nature makes them potentially less accurate, like measuring water quality in Lake Michigan by testing just one spoonful.
Both approaches have shortcomings, but competency based learning is based on an idea appealing and sensible enough that folks can’t help periodically looking at it and thinking, “Surely there’s a way we can implement this that would not only work, but make schooling better.” Still, after all these decades, no one has quite uncovered the secret. We’ll see if New Hampshire has any luck.