Competency-based education during the COVID-19 pandemic

Written by Christine Cooke

July 29, 2020

Overnight our nation’s schools were thrust into the seemingly untenable position of system redesign, but what seemed like a temporary crisis can now be viewed as an opportunity to think big and bold.

–Karla Phillips Krivickas

Education expert Karla Phillips-Krivickas says a redesign for public schools in the wake of COVID-19 has implications for competency-based education (CBE), an approach which allows students to progress through learning as quickly or as slowly as they demonstrate competency in a topic.

Recently, Sutherland Institute spoke with Phillips-Krivickas, senior director of policy at KnowledgeWorks, an expert in competency-based education who is leading the development and execution of KnowledgeWorks’ state policy strategy.

Her insight is particularly relevant for Utahns, given that our state has been a leader in competency-based education in public schooling for the past several years. In 2016 the state created a pilot program for districts and charters that want to try implementing competency-based education for their students. In 2017 the state passed a bill to reimburse schools that graduate students early so there is no penalty for progressing students at their individual pace.

The following is a Q&A between Christine Cooke, Sutherland Institute education policy fellow, and Karla Phillips-Krivickas.

Christine Cooke: What does competency-based education (CBE) look like in the year 2020? How has the movement grown from its beginnings to where it is today?

Phillips-Krivickas: The state policy supporting competency-based education as well as school-level implementation has experienced dramatic expansion in the past 5-7 years. This has been clearly evidenced in Utah.

Utah began its journey exploring competency-based education in 2013 with HB 393. Since that time a state board advisory council has supported the development and implementation of a competency-based education framework along with the funding of planning and implementation grants.

Nationally, the focus of competency-based education has shifted from a focus on acceleration and pace to personalization and equity. The policy conversation has seen a similar evolution in Utah. In fact, one of the four strategic goals of the state board’s strategic plan is personalized teaching and learning. The board has also developed a profile of a graduate with supportive competencies. The competencies are still in draft form for public comment.

Cooke: What is the major effect that school closures have had on the CBE movement, if any?

Phillips-Krivickas: It’s still too early to tell, but it appears to have increased interest. CBE is not new, but technology certainly facilitates implementation. The immediate transition to remote learning has provided schools the opportunity to embrace technology in ways they never envisioned or imagined. Even the obstacles of bandwidth and lack of devices are being tackled like never before.

Cooke: Do you think the pandemic disruption will incline more schools to pursue innovations like competency-based education? Why or why not?

Phillips-Krivickas: Yes, I do. I believe our school’s leaders are committed to pursuing every opportunity possible to meet the needs of their students. Overnight our nation’s schools were thrust into the seemingly untenable position of system redesign, but what seemed like a temporary crisis can now be viewed as an opportunity to think big and bold. It is encouraging to see that states like Kansas are building innovations like personalized, competency-based education into recent guidance, or Montana’s effort to explicitly identify the flexibility that schools both have or will need to strengthen learning opportunities for students.

Simultaneously, student and family frustration during the shutdown made it abundantly clear that schools need to design systems to support the new roles families are being asked to take on. A competency-based system can provide the transparency students and families need to know where each student is at any time.

Cooke: How did CBE schools fare under school closures as compared to schools that hadn’t adopted a CBE mindset? Any examples?

Phillips-Krivickas: Again, it is probably too early to tell, but anecdotally we hear that the transition to remote learning was smoother for schools that have embraced the principles of a competency-based system. I believe this crisis may have created the urgency schools needed to accelerate implementation.

Cooke: Can homeschoolers move toward a more CBE approach? In what ways might they already be doing it?

Phillips-Krivickas: By their very nature, homeschool approaches embed student agency. Parents know what their children are interested in and often use project-based learning to enable their students to explore their interests in a deeper way. Learners also have flexibility to accelerate when ready or to slow down when needed. Every state should ensure they have a clear vision for what they want their graduates to know and do. This vision including student competencies, while remaining optional for homeschooling families, could provide additional support and resources. Regardless of the source, a continuum of competencies that parents would like their students to master would help them identify great resources rather than being dependent on pre-planned curriculum.

Cooke: What is CBE going to look like in the future?

Phillips-Krivickas: One word – personalized.

Designing a CBE system creates a solid foundation for what students need to know and know how to do, and how they can demonstrate mastery. For all students to be able to succeed, however, personalized learning strategies are needed.

At the state level I think the future depends on if states choose to seize this moment and transition the need for flexibility from merely crisis management to systemic reform. To help states take action, we recently released guidance that shines a light on the pain points schools are experiencing in redesigning their systems. KnowledgeWorks’ recent guide for systems-level change in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Restoring Hope and Seizing Opportunity in the Face of Crisis,” was written to clarify the policy issues facing schools.

Utah is leading the way as demonstrated by recent actions taken by the State Board of Education to uncouple seat time from school funding.

During this unprecedented time the goal is not merely to innovate. The goal should be a return to school that is not about what was lost but rather the insights leveraged to create equitable and nimble systems and the structures needed for the future success of each student.

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