Competency-Based Educational Strategies Enhanced by Technology

Founder, CEO & Chief Data Wizard at Schoolrunner

Last week I wrote about giving educators and students the tools they need to achieve agency in their lives. This week I wanted to expand that concept beyond technology tools.

Now I want to think through how the reforms we choose to implement bump up against the technologies we have, as well as the needs of other stakeholders.

Change Needed for Strategies to Take Hold

Competency-based education is another good example of an exciting concept that doesn’t fit the mold that most schools have built. The basic concept is great: ensure that no students get bored and no students get left behind by allowing each learner to progress at their own pace.

For example, that means we no longer think of a bunch of 7-year-olds as second graders doing second-grade math. Some of those 7-year-olds will have progressed past what we currently think of as the second-grade curriculum, and others will still be making their way through earlier material.

In order to implement competency-based education properly, there has to be organizational change in areas including scheduling, process, technology, even the use of physical space within the building. Most organizations will struggle to make the changes needed to get to the benefits of the implementation.

Additionally, how do you explain to a student or parent what it means to not be allowed to progress to the “on-grade-level” material? That’s not a message we’re used to communicating and it’s not one with an easy answer when you project forward to how this is going to affect the child as they progress through their education.

New Tools Support Standards-Based Grading

A related, but simpler concept is standards-based grading. In this case you’re keeping most of the concepts the same in terms of classes and grade levels, but instead of calculating grades based on homework completion plus test or project performance, you’re calculating a mastery level for every concept or standard a child is taught and then averaging those together to get an overall grade.

There are new tools that can support certain workflows within standards-based grading. Some schools and vendors have even announced that calculating grades in the traditional way is useless. The best part of this approach is the ability to drill down and get details about what skills or concepts a child needs the most help with, which is useful for teachers, students, and parents.

The problem here is not so much that the technology can’t represent what schools are trying to achieve, or that the goal of a more accurate grade isn’t a good one. The issue is instead that it’s too hard for many stakeholders to make use of this information.

For example, if you tell a parent that their child has a B in math, there’s a good chance most parents will have a vague sense of whether their child is completing their work and mastering the material. It may not be a perfect signal since it can easily value compliance (homework completion, participation) over actual mastery. However, it sends the basic signal to the student and parent on a red/yellow/green level.

On the other hand, if a student is at a “Basic” level of mastery there may be little context for interpretation by a parent. Is the student doing his homework or not? Does he have testing anxiety? A parent may not be able to tell from that measure.

Technology Puts It in Context

One approach we’ve taken at Schoolrunner is to figure out how to fit the benefits of some of these strategies into the structures that schools already have in place, or the framing that parents are already familiar with. Rather than be wedded to one absolute way of doing things, we’ve tried to give schools options to track data in ways that gives them the most information and the most options for making sense of it later.

That way they can present a progress report that says, “Your student got a B: He did well on the tests, but never did his homework and struggled in these three conceptual areas.” That’s something that fits with the needs of all stakeholders.

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