Is your student 'competent'? A new education yardstick takes the measure.
A new learning regimen requires pupils to show proficiency in 'core competencies' for each subject – with no exceptions. It's called competency-based education. Here's who's trying it and what it entails.
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The simulation takes several class periods and drives home lessons on nationalism, geography, economics, military strategy, and culture, so when the teachers incorporate the facts of World War I, students can take away more than just a string of events. "It's teaching kids more to look at situations and predict," Gray says.Skip to next paragraph
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When Sanborn students aren't on track to meet a class competency, they are expected to keep working at it during flexible periods designed to reteach key elements. "When the teacher actually comes up to you and teaches you how to do it by yourself," freshman Julia Melvin says, "sometimes you get it easier, and then they'll give you [an assignment] and usually you get a way better grade."
Enrichment opportunities can be created for students who more quickly master the competencies.
One key to the competency approach has been grouping teachers together so they can collaborate on activities, assessments, and promoting the success of the students they share, says Sanborn Principal Brian Stack. By contrast, in many schools teachers work largely in isolation.
The transition also required communicating with parents, some of whom have looked askance at a grading system that does not reward behaviors such as getting homework in on time, Mr. Stack says. But parents – and college admissions representatives – end up appreciating report cards that specify areas within each subject where a student meets standards, needs work, or is excelling, he adds.
One concern that surfaces among skeptics is that "done poorly, [competency-based education] becomes a checklist of skills rather than engaging young people in big questions and challenging them to think big thoughts," Mr. Vander Ark says. But the latter is what happens if it's done well, he says.
Students in charge of their own learning
The small Making Community Connections Charter School in Manchester, N.H., has taken the concept even further than Sanborn, which still generally groups students in grade levels. At the charter school, students enter between ages 13 and 16, and move along the path to graduation not based on grade levels or school years but on public exhibits whenever they are ready to prove their competencies to move to a new level. Some zip through high school in two years, others may take six (refugees who missed a lot of formal schooling, for instance).
They earn credits through internships with local businesses and by making "treks" for research in the community, presenting personal projects on topics they choose, and attending "learning studios" where teachers oversee interdisciplinary work.
Students initially learn "what it means to be the person in charge of your learning," says chief education officer Kim Carter, who has focused on competency-based education for decades. "They have to apply, document, and defend their learning, and later, design it, too. It's a big shift from the teacher telling you what to do."
Rowan Brantley previously attended a local middle school and says she didn't do well there. By contrast, "there's a lot of choice here, so if I have an issue with a class or I'm not learning the way I want to, I can change that," she says.
She and several schoolmates gave a May presentation to adults in the community to earn a $1,000 grant to start a club for mentoring younger students and making and selling T-shirts with socially conscious messages. Teachers ensure that educational standards are woven into such activities, but when students are so engaged in meaningful projects, Ms. Carter says, "learning becomes almost incidental to them.... It's more like the way people learn in life, outside of school."