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Austin White: Competency-Based Education

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Today a few fellow interns and I ventured out to the Capitol for the Congressional E-Learning Caucus Briefing on K-12 Competency-Based Education. Originally I had thought that the speakers planned to center their panel discussion on virtual learning programs to share information about technology’s potential role in the classroom. But virtual learning ended up being the background of a very clear message—education needs to focus on maximizing student proficiency. To do this, they advocated for Competency-Based Education, merely showing how educators can utilize technology as one tool among many for progressive education models.

So what is Competency-Based Education? Competency-Based Education essentially aims to ensure that students only complete their subjects after successfully demonstrating an adequate understanding of the material. Understanding that every child has unique learning habits, it requires individualized learning plans tailored to each student’s strengths and weaknesses. Remembering my own educational history, the thought of being able to create a personal pace between subjects was immediately appealing. We all remember feeling rushed through some classes and moving too slowly in others, rarely feeling as though the timing was just right. Whereas the traditional education system locks students into one universally prescribed path in each grade level, these alternative models finally offer students the chance to advance at their own rate.

Further, to meet their needs, students get the chance to blend learning methods between digital learning, internship work, independent projects, and traditional teacher-student face time. As long as they can eventually demonstrate their comprehension of the subject material, they are given a degree of freedom in their curriculum structure. The whole way through, the programs are personalized.

Not only is it exciting to think of the benefits for those struggling to learn at a fitting pace, but the potential for highly motivated students now becomes endless. Think of the possibility for the bright young minds of the next generation to achieve what educators may never have imagined possible, all without ever disrupting or compromising the learning progress of their peers. One speaker gave an example of an 8th Grade student that had once struggled with reading, and through Competency-Based Learning caught up by completing in one year what, according to a regular pace, should have taken eight. We have no idea what our students are capable of, but this system allows them to show us.

Ultimately, I think what struck me the most was the ability for this system to encourage students and keep them from disengaging. I know too many people who learned at a young age that traditional education did not work for them. Even more disheartening were those that believed that they were at fault for not meeting the standards they had been told to achieve. Einstein famously said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Today I was shown an alternative—one that I feel has incredible potential to improve American education.