Why is competency-based education so hard to study?

Here are three questions I find myself asking about research looking ahead:

Is it useful to measure the effects of a new philosophy?

Competency-based education may mean measuring credit differently; but it also means adopting a new philosophy about how students should progress through material. To complicate matters, many schools implementing competency-based education are also founded on additional and varying philosophies—MC2 in New Hampshire focuses on self-directed projects that link students to real-world experiences; BDEA in Boston aims to ensure efficient graduation for off-track youth; Summit Public Schools in the Bay Area uses sophisticated technology to drive toward personalization at scale.

If each of these models qualifies as competency-based, however, is it viable to isolate the “competency-based” approach from the other philosophies guiding these different systems? Is it even useful to do so?

Much like the last decades’ emphasis on differentiated instruction, or this decade’s focus on blended learning, competency-based approaches writ large may not be a useful—or sufficiently narrow—unit to study. In light of the cultural shifts implicit in a philosophical shift, there may be room for anthropologists or sociologists to try to capture qualitative differences between competency- and time-based systems. But I worry that researching “competency-based education” full stop—in schools that look so different—risks a research cycle that simply reifies a broad category with little ability to inform policy or practice.

Could a more precise taxonomy help measurement and implementation?

In light of the giant category that is competency-based education, it makes sense that researchers and practitioners have attempted to define the tenets of a competency-based system. The RAND study focuses on three key variables that schools focused on to varying degrees—flexible pacing, student choices to personalize learning, and evaluation based on evidence of proficiency. CompetencyWorks offers a similar five-part definition. These categories begin to break down “competency-based” into more manageable parts.

Identifying such practices in the field with greater and greater descriptive precision will make it easier for practitioners to replicate practices and for researchers to evaluate them. Combinations of practice may also prove important categories: looking ahead, much as our blended-learning taxonomy work has aimed to do, the field might try to formulate a taxonomy that describes the universe of practices in competency-based schools, and from those, extrapolates common combinations of practices or “models.”

Codifying these models might also clarify demand for technology tools that could support different competency-based approaches. Models that emphasize performance assessment and internships will require different tools than those that rely heavily on blended learning. Distinguishing among the needs of these models might generate better tools for each, rather than one-size-fits-none platforms.