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Austin White: Competency-Based Education

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

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Annie Bennett: iNACOL Panel Reaction

Before attending the iNACOL e-Learning Caucus held on Tuesday, I have to admit that my thoughts on virtual learning were utterly wrong. The truth is, when I thought of anything regarding “online schools,” I imagined a child sitting alone at home in their pajamas, wading their way through curriculum with only the companionship of a computer screen. Instead, listening to the panel speak about their involvement in the virtual learning and competency based education movement, I began to realize how wrong my pre-conceived notions had been.

Rather than a focus on using snazzy new technology or simply placing a child in front of a computer screen, the virtual learning movement is based around the notion of flipping the education system to be completely student and outcome-based. Proficiency-based education, a term which I was not familiar with, means that only when a student shows proficiency in a subject or unit do they move on, making time the variable and learning the standard. E-learning, therefore, has much less to do with the coolest new app on an iPad or the latest gadget and much more to do with an individualized approach to education that makes sure that every student is empowered to gain the knowledge and skills they need.

Once the idea of competency-based education is introduced, it almost seems common sense. Why should we set goals of mediocrity for our students when they have the potential for so much more? And how can we expect a student who receives a poor grade in 4th grade math to have the foundation they need to be successful in future courses? Instead, a cycle of failure perpetuates that leaves students feeling inept and hopeless, while teachers who are already strapped for time are expected to successfully teach students material to which they have no foundation.

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Macon Richardson: Online and Blended Learning Panel Discussion

The moderator, Susan Patrick, provided an excellent explanation of competency-based learning and technology’s potential to enhance individual educational outcomes. Patrick described a common dilemma in classrooms: students understand concepts and materials at different paces. But this reality is not reflected in traditional classrooms, where students move through curriculum in packs. The student who quickly understands concepts (e.g. the quadratic formula) must wait until his peers also understand those concepts before progressing to a new topic. As an advanced learner, he is disadvantaged and incapable of reaching his full potential.

More alarmingly, a student who fails to learn concepts before the class progresses develops “gaps” in his knowledge. For example, a student who fails to learn the quadratic formula before the class moves on to derivatives has little recourse to ensure complete mastery of the quadratic formula.  He has developed a “gap” in his mathematical knowledge; he does not understand a core concept. Competency-based learning offers a personalized approach to school, solving the dilemma of students moving through material at different paces. It empowers students to take their education into their own hands, to set the pace of their own learning and to ensure full mastery of material.

An advanced student can move quickly through material without being hindered by his peers. A student who struggles with certain subjects is allowed the time and resources to move slower through curriculum and to ensure full mastery of that curriculum. According to Patrick, blended and online learning is the best infrastructure for competency-based learning. Furthermore, blended and online learning can combat teacher shortages and a lack of AP classes in America’s high schools. Students are allowed more scheduling freedom. If a student runs the risk of failing to graduate on time, online learning can make it easy to gain credit. Patrick gave an exceptional

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Here They Go Again…

I read with some interest and a lot of frustration this Washington Post article, taking as gospel the findings of a flawed study conducted by The National Education Policy Center (NEPC). The study “found” K12 Inc. lags behind traditional public schools.

Once again we have good reporters getting snookered by “research” based on un-comparable data and lacking any value-added measurement of performance progress over time.

By any reasonable standard, reputable research needs to be based on an apples to apples comparison of subjects. The NEPC methodology makes no effort to compensate for the fact that the basic nature of virtual schools like K12 makes it difficult to compare their students to those in traditional public schools. Consequently, it ends up comparing apples to watermelons.

The NEPC report also cites a 2009 CREDO study that is one of the most egregious examples of bad research out there. CER has successfully debunked it time after time and yet the media continues to trot out that Trojan horse for some reason.

Where does madness end? When is the media going to learn to recognize good research from bad?

–Jeanne Allen, Founder and President of the Center for Education Reform

For K12 Inc.’s perspective, check out the Spotlight section on their website.


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