Competency Based Education

The purpose of this post is to clarify some opinions I expressed during a Twitter conversation with @PhilOnEdTech, @harmonygritz, and @WGU about Competency Based Education. I have followed Phil for almost a year now and I am impressed with the depth of his knowledge on Ed Tech issues. In a blogosphere of evangelists, he can be a voice of reason and caution, for that, I greatly admire his work. I am a classroom teacher. I have been for the last 12 years. Prior to working in the classroom, I worked for an entertainment industry, technology R&D lab. I have great enthusiasm and zeal for incorporating technology into my classroom practices. My experience in running a 1:1 classroom was that my course failure rate dropped by fifty percent. I do not believe that other teachers would have the same experience. In fact, I might not even have the same experience with a different sample of students. Thus, my main point in responding to Phil is that education policymakers should proceed cautiously before rolling out CBE on a large scale. Of course, this will not happen because most education policymakers are politicians who want to be seen as innovators, working hard to solve problems in our nation’s schools.

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Students who develop strong, positive relationships with their teachers are more likely to engage in rigorous academic work. Further, students who experience their high school curriculum in a coherent, aligned, and interdisciplinary manner (i.e., work-based, or competency-based education models) have shown increased engagement and higher graduation rates. Bob Bain has articulated the dangers a fragmented curriculum poses to student engagement. It was with these factors in mind that I joined a group of educators in starting up an entertainment industry-themed pilot school (LAUSD’s in-house answer to charters) a little more than five years ago.

What we experienced was that many of our students did not “choose” our program for its work-based program merits. Students came into the program with varying levels of enthusiasm for entertainment industry careers. When I interviewed many of my chronically absent and failing students, I found they wanted careers in social work, psychology, and law enforcement. Many of them had been rejected by the larger career academies in the district and had come to us as their 2nd, 3rd, or 4th choice. Further, a rigorous, career-based, competency model can be even more difficult for low-income students to complete. Some researchers have theorized that urban, low-income students are exposed to greater levels of violence in their neighborhoods and grow up with symptoms of PTSD. I concur with this line of reasoning. Dealing with teenagers is always a balancing act. On the first day of state testing, the body of one of our female students was discovered, naked, shoved into a box, and dumped on the side of the freeway. She was 15 years old. The police held a news conference at 7 am in front of our school. Do you think our students found those tests relevant to their lives?

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My point is that we should follow Phil’s advice when it comes to Ed Tech. There are no silver bullets. I think Mark Twain said something about lies, damn lies, and education statistics. Often, I see schools and districts making million-dollar decisions based on hope rather than validated outcomes. I’d like to see CBE tested rigorously and in a variety of school settings before it is anointed as the Holy Grail, be all, end all replacement to the Carnegie unit. I am in favor of experimentation in K12 education. I think, as a country, we do far too little of it. I am concerned that ed pols rush headfirst, full of optimism and good intentions, into areas where there is a dearth of empirical evidence, then are surprised when things don’t work out.  Many K12 students lack the work experience and subject matter knowledge to benefit from a competency-based ed program. Let’s take a breath and see how deep the water really is before we all jump in.

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