An education system that advances students based on their mastery of content rather than age or seat time seems intuitive. Transitioning to a system of competency-based education from a traditional one, however, takes a lot of planning.
More than 300 Iowa education stakeholders took a big first step in the process Dec. 8 at a state conference in Des Moines.
The one-day conference, "Connecting Research to Practice: Research to Action Forum on Competency-Based Education," featured educators and experts who are working in competency-based education systems at the federal level and in states such as New Hampshire, Alaska and Wisconsin.
Participants studied definitions of competency-based education, asked questions and learned what the approach looks like in the classroom – as well as the potential barriers.
"The single biggest barrier to this vision of learning for our kids in the United States is the fact that we fund and base policy on the number of minutes kids sit in seats," said Susan Patrick, the president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.
Patrick, a presenter, told participants that competency-based education includes clear, measurable learning objectives that empower students, assessments that are meaningful and positive learning experiences, personalized instruction and application of knowledge. She emphasized that buy-in from teachers, parents and communities is essential to the transition.
Participants also heard from a teacher and two students from Alaska's Chugach school district, which shifted to a competency-based education system 15 years ago. Lessons are based on real-life applications and report cards are based on standards, rather than traditional letter grades.
"They can pull out their report cards and say ... 'These are the standards I'm working on now, and here's what's next,'" Stephanie Burgoon, a teacher, told conference participants via Skype. "Our kids know exactly what they need to know to succeed."
The conference, which featured several panel discussions and break-out sessions, was hosted by the Iowa Department of Education and sponsored by Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest.
Competency-based education already has a foothold in Iowa. The state began working toward the approach in 2009. Following the lead of the State Board of Education, a task force made up of representatives from the Iowa Department of Education, Area Education Agencies and school districts began to explore how competency-based education could work in Iowa.
Expanding competency-based education is a key goal outlined in the education blueprint released by Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds in October.
Iowa school leaders who want to pursue competency-based education can apply for waivers from traditional academic credit requirements. School administrators can find guidance from the Iowa Department of Education by clicking here.
State officials will work to support school districts that shift to a competency-based education system, Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass told participants.
"I pledge that we will work to remove barriers," Glass said.
Some Iowa school districts, including Muscatine and Spirit Lake, already have taken steps to pursue competency-based education.
Muscatine Superintendent Bill Decker said his district embraced the approach to increase achievement and create a deeper learning experience for students.
"We have maxed out what we can get in a traditional environment," Decker said.
Conference participants included Iowa educators, school administrators, university officials, state and regional education officials, legislators, and business and community leaders.
The online conversation will continue long after the conference. Join it on Twitter using the hashtag #IAcomped or sign up for a web site created to share information about competency-based education in Iowa: http://bridgeevent.ning.com/