Another challenge for the competency-based classroom: Explaining it

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School may be out for the kiddos, but Iowa educators were studying hard this past week. The lesson? Competency-based education.

The idea is simple: Unchain learning from instruction time, placing students by proficiency, not age; allowing them to advance when they master their coursework, not according to calendar year.

Competency-based education should make intuitive sense to any parent who has watched his or her child struggle to keep up with lessons, or listened to them complain about how bored they are, waiting for other kids to get up to speed.

Competency-based education puts the focus on learning, not just showing up. It removes much of what disengaged students, rightly, see as arbitrary and unfair.

Weíre not machines, learning new skills and ideas at a uniform rate. So why teach as if we were?

Well, itís how our schools are structured, for starters. Unhooking curriculum from the school calendar creates a number of logistical headaches.

How do you plan for space and staff? How do you manage a classroom when students come and go?

Itís the final piece of statewide school reform outstanding, and itís a big one.

A task force studying these and other questions is due to report back to legislators in November.

In the meantime, educators at last weekís Iowa ASCD Competency-Based Education Conference did a little studying of their own.

Itís great to see educators sharing ideas about how to solve puzzles of implementing competency-based practices. In my experience, they intuitively get how big a shift this could be, not in curriculum, or even necessarily in time to graduation, but in the way we think about education.

The biggest challenges to competency-based learning is likely to come from outside the education community: From kids used to sliding by with glancing attention, enough to earn them barely passing grades. From kids and parents used to playing the points game in pursuit of an ďA.Ē

Taking this step will require more than figuring out logistics, it will mean convincing those outside school walls that such a radical shift is worth it. It will mean teaching communities why itís worth junking a familiar system for one that no longer sorts kids into groups, but holds them accountable for results.

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