The Rise of Competency Based Education

By Bob Spagnola, assistant dean and associate professor, Education

Denver Post writer Jeremy Meyer recently wrote an article describing the “revolutionary academic strategy introduced in 2009 by the troubled Adams County School District 50 that took a radical approach to how children should be promoted in school.” District 50 decided to group students not by grade and age, but by what they knew and were able to do. At first, when immediate results were not forthcoming for the standards-based model, the whole idea was thought to be a bust. Superintendent Roberta Selleck was replaced and even though scores were not improving, District 50 renamed the strategy “competency-based” education, hired Pam Swanson as the new superintendent, and stayed the course. Since that initial dip in scores in 2009, District 50 has been pulled off turnaround status and scores have continued to rise.

At the collegiate level, colleges and universities have traditionally designed their courses around a course-based system where students take the same kind of courses to earn credit-based acknowledgement of their learning. A few colleges and universities have started to experiment with what Mr. Meyer might refer to as a radical new way of looking at learning. Schools like Western Governors University and Brandman University are experimenting with learning models where students can satisfy the requirements for college credit and a degree by demonstrating competencies demanded by the degree through taking courses or by constructing portfolios that demonstrate mastery of the competencies from prior learning or experience.

The key to innovation in education is to find ways around or through the existing policy barriers that insist one size fits all. Until Westminster showed the courage to break the mold, how many children were held back in their learning because of artificial barriers like age and grade levels. How many kids around the country are still held back from advancing and learning because of poor education policy? At the postsecondary level, how many students pay thousands of dollars for courses they don’t need because they have to satisfy an education system based on Carnegie units?

In competency based learning systems, the model for improving knowledge rests on an institution or school district clearly defining the specific competencies expected of its graduates. This sends a clear message, what a learner is expected to know and be able to do, and centers student learning squarely in the middle of academic activities instead of forcing teachers to deal with the distractions of age and grade levels.

I am proud to announce that the new Education Leadership Program at Regis University will be among the first education programs in the country built on a subset of the competency framework where aspiring principal licensure students have competency assessments embedded into each course in the Program and where project-based learning is integrated with these assessments giving the new Regis University Education Leadership Program a tightly structured combination of courses and integrative experiences all designed around the competencies created for the Program.

We have all heard the tired cliché about thinking out of the box. Ever think about what “the box” really means in education? The box is a frame, the traditional way of thinking about a problem. To get out of the box and improve student learning, we have to shift the frame. Competency education is just one small shift in the frame. We need more.

As Deepak Chopra said: “Instead of thinking outside the box, get rid of the box.”

Meyer, J. (2014). Is Westminster 50 on to something? The Denver Post, May 11.