By Christine Cooke

Each student is a distinct individual with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. Parents know this; students know this; so it makes sense that education should reflect this as well.

Yet in the call for robust school reform, we’re accustomed to getting more standardization (i.e., age-level, grade-level sameness). Perhaps for this reason, a self-paced mode of learning called Competency-Based Education (CBE) is stirring conversation nationwide, Utah included.

In early September the Utah State Legislature held the Utah Joint Education Conference, where half of the time was devoted to CBE in Utah, from kindergarten level through graduate school (aka K-20). As this discussion continues, we should ask: What is CBE? And is it good for Utah?

There’s no one definition for CBE, but it’s best described as awarding school credit for mastery of a subject – no sooner, no later. Under this model students don’t earn school credit simply for seat time or attendance.

A recent American Enterprise Institute report discusses the landscape of CBE in higher education today and explains that we might not recognize our existing warm familiarity with it. For instance, Advanced Placement exams, International Baccalaureate exams, and the College-Level Examination Program are examples of one form of competency-based education called Prior Learning Assessments (PLA). PLAs allow students to earn credit for their mastery of a subject without taking the course.

What’s less familiar – and potentially trickier – is the form of CBE that allows a student to acquire mastery of new academic content. Western Governors University, based in Salt Lake City, employs such a model. At Western Governors, a council of experts defines “competencies” a student needs to possess to earn a certain degree. Students take online courses, progress at their own speed, and graduate as soon as they pass all the required assessments. Examples of this type of CBE exist in both higher education and K-12 education across the country.

To be clear, not all online courses are competency-based courses. At the heart of online education is convenience. At the heart of any competency-based learning is customization. But it’s hard to imagine the plausibility of a large-scale K-20 CBE without online tools. What teacher can perfectly customize an in-person education for 20-plus students? Luckily, Utah is a known leader in digital learning. In August 2015, The Best States for Online College Students ranked Utah as No. 3 in the nation. Digital Learning Now gave Utah a grade of A- in April 2015 for overall digital learning efforts. Utah may have one of the best infrastructures to make K-20 CBE a reality.

Competency-based education may result in economic benefits due to its cost-saving potential in higher education. Cost savings are especially likely using an “all-you-can-eat model.” As the name suggests, students can pay for a certain amount of time from the school, earning as many credits as possible during that period. However, as the American Enterprise Institute report explains, this can cut the other way – for example, those who move slowly through the paid time period, making each credit hour costlier. Still, it’s attractive for many whose pace would make that option more affordable. This would reduce the need for student loans. In turn, fewer graduates steeped in debt would help the state and national economy in a number of ways – for example, allowing those in their 20s and 30s to start businesses and families earlier.

In 2013, the Utah Legislature officially adopted an eight-year statewide goal, which seeks to have 66 percent of Utah’s adult workforce holding a postsecondary degree or certificate by the year 2020. This is a worthwhile goal, but it requires all the practical help it can get; in 2013 only 43 percent of adults in Utah had these credentials. A number of adults want to go back for more education but feel overwhelmed by the time commitment or frustrated by course requirements for subjects in which they’re already proficient. CBE softens these challenges and brings Utah closer to its statewide goal.

We should not view CBE as the magical fix of school reform – and we should hold a healthy suspicion of the thought that any such reform exists anyway. Truthfully, CBE does little to address federal intervention in education and may just streamline students through federal-standards-aligned curriculum at the K-12 level. Widespread implementation will probably run into challenges with accountability measures and capable data systems. Still, CBE has proven that bucking the status quo can lead to a more student-centered approach. Truly student-centered education should mean flexibility, choice, and customization in speed as well as curriculum. And that’s why CBE’s small step toward this ideal is gaining attention nationally. Perhaps it should keep ours, too, in Utah.

Christine Cooke works as a policy analyst for Sutherland Institute’s Center for Educational Progress. Christine has a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University in English Teaching and graduated from Arizona State University with a law degree. Prior to joining Sutherland Institute, Christine was an English teacher at a public junior high school and a residential treatment center. As a student attorney in the Arizona State University Juvenile Advocacy Clinic, Christine represented clients in juvenile law proceedings and taught community legal education to high school students. She worked in legal and policy research with the legal counsel for the Arizona Office of the Governor, legal counsel for Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, the Goldwater Institute, and The Heritage Foundation. Christine has made appearances on Fox-13 News and KSL’s Sunday Edition and is regularly featured in regional publications and radio shows. She currently sits on a state committee that advises the Utah State Board of Education on specific education issues. When in her home state of Arizona, she loves to spend time with her family. She also loves music, hiking, and making cookies.


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