‘Toolkit’ Breaks Down K-12 Districts’ Shifts Into Competency-Based Learning

Managing Editor

A new guide provides insights on districts’ efforts to pioneer approaches in “competency-based learning,” and documents the many challenges they can face along the way.

The online Competency-Based Education Toolkit was unveiled recently by Digital Promise, a nonprofit that seeks to promote the effective use of technology and research in schools, and Education Elements, a consulting firm that works with districts on “personalized learning” and other goals.

The guide offers on-the-ground examples from districts that are at various stages of developing or implementing competency-based models, and it’s meant to serve as a blueprint for other K-12 systems that might follow their lead.

It provides resources—through written guides, videos, and other means—focused on different questions K-12 districts will almost certainly have to address if they’re trying to implement competency-based models. (See a video from the site, below, about a collaborative, competency-based project across three states.)

The questions facing districts include how to collect input from parents and other stakeholders in the community about competency-based systems; how to design curriculum that fits a new academic model; and how to arrange staff support and scheduling for a system that is a major departure from the norm.

Collectively, the new toolkit also offers a resource to K-12 companies who are trying to anticipate the specific needs of school systems putting in place competency-based strategies—in assessment, family engagement, and other areas.

Competency-based education typically refers to efforts to allow students to make academic progress through school based on their demonstrated mastery of subjects, as opposed to students having to fulfill time requirements set by school policy and official state or local school calendars.

School districts have been using various forms of competency-based education for years. Over half of the 86 members of Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools—a coalition of districts that share information and test forward-thinking ideas—are working on or toward competency-based education, said Melissa Gedney, the program and communications manager for the league.

Among the school programs whose competency-based work is highlighted in the toolkit: the Lindsay Unified School District, in California; the Seminole County school system, in Florida; the Pascack Valley Regional High School District, in New Jersey; and Utah Schools for the Blind and Deaf.

Digital Promise says it had been bringing together a working group of superintendents and district leaders for several years, based on interest from league schools. The toolkit grew out of that work. Education Elements worked with Digital Promise to stage workshops in which districts exchanged ideas on competency-based learning, and documented their efforts.

The toolkit “was a way of pushing the field forward, faster” on competency-based models, said Mike Wolking, a senior strategist at Education Elements, in an interview.

Many districts and schools face a shared set of challenges in trying to implement competency-based learning–where they may need help from companies and other outside organizations.

The challenges include trying to create data systems capable of keeping track of students and their academic progress as they move through an academic system at different paces, Wolking said. Districts need help setting benchmarks on student progress. They need help crafting assessments capable of gauging students’ progress. And they need to make sure it all works together.

A district could be using “two, three, four systems to manage student progress in different ways,” said Wolking, and if the process is not well-managed, “it becomes a thorny problem.”

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