Trending: Competency-Based Education

I attended UVTI (before we became UVEI) from 2006 to 2007 as a teacher intern, taught math in Seattle for five years, then returned to the Upper Valley and began working at UVEI in 2014. Quite a bit has changed here in ten years, but one constant has been our commitment to competency-based education.  In my capacity as Registrar, I prepare transcripts -- the documents that describe to employers, licensing bureaus, etc. what our graduates have achieved.  Because our graduates are assessed as to whether they are competent as a beginning teacher, one of my challenges is to find a way to write those descriptions so that they can be understood by a wider audience, including those only familiar with a traditional grading system. I must admit that there are days when I catch myself thinking “if only we gave grades…”

Recently, I was able to expand my thinking when I attended a panel discussion on competency- based education, led by administrators from several local school districts. The audience for this discussion was not educators - it was the 2016-2017 Leadership Upper Valley cohort of community members (myself included) from all industries and professions. Many people in the cohort  had not been in a school in many years, yet the planners of this “education day” had decided that competency-based education was important enough to share with us. After all, replacing the traditional Carnegie unit method for measuring student progress with a method based on competency or proficiency has become an educational priority in both New Hampshire and Vermont.  

The discussion started with the “what”, then moved into the “so what” and “why”, delving into questions and challenges associated with this approach to education. Here are some worthy takeaways:

  1. Competency-based education focuses on mastery of skills rather than time spent in school -- every student will work at a different pace and have a different trajectory as they reach mastery. It attempts to close the gap between theory and application.  For example, a skill would not be just knowing/memorizing the Pythagorean Theorem, but using it in a practical way, such as building a truss.

  1. Some schools view the move towards competency-based education as one that changes the teacher’s role from “imparter of knowledge” to facilitator. The new “teacher as facilitator” system can be modeled, at least in part, on what is already taking place at local technical centers.

  1. Competency-based education necessitates thoughtfulness and flexibility on the instructor’s side (adjusting level of scaffolding, for example). The traditional educational system (bells, grade levels, etc) poses a challenge, as the competency-based approach requires time and flexibility.

  1. “Report cards” will also be different in a competency-based system. However, higher education policies, funding requirements, and other traditional systems pose a challenge as the reporting of student progress changes focus.

  1. K-12 schools generally do not have all of the answers to what a competency-based system will look like. The good news is that school leaders are generally “on board” with this approach as a way of better serving all students.

A final moment from the education day comes to mind. It was when Joanne Roberts, superintendent of the Lebanon School District and one of the education day planners, pointed out that none of her work is done in isolation.  This rings true also for our work here at UVEI. As we continually strive to improve our competency-based approach, we are working alongside a multitude of other educational communities that have similar goals. As we move forward and encounter challenges along the way, there will likely be other schools encountering similar challenges. As competency-based education moves into the mainstream, I believe that dialogue among our organizations can help us all move in a positive direction, and I’ll daydream no more about taking the easier path and awarding grades.  

Commentary by Marie McCormick

Marie McCormick is UVEI’s Registrar and Librarian, and a member of Leadership Upper Valley’s Class of 2017.