Why is competency-based education so hard to study?

Students need to learn how to learn in a competency-based model that gives them greater choice

competency-based-learningA few research pitfalls seem to be creeping into the still nascent world of K-12 competency-based education: first, the challenge of moving from discussing high-level theory to describing precisely competency-based practices.

And second, going from identifying specific practices to designing sufficiently specific, appropriate evaluation to measure the effects of those practices.

Both of these tensions can make conversations about competency-based education feel speculative. The term “competency-based” often describes a wide range of classroom practices, but schools that call themselves competency-based may not subscribe to all such practices. And even when these practices are spelled out, we have yet to study them in isolation, to understand which—if any—drive student growth and in what circumstances.

In order to really study competency-based models, the field may need more specific categories than “competency-based” to translate the theory into practice; and we likely need new research paradigms to evaluate these specific practices.

This month’s RAND study on three competency-based education pilot programs is a great example of these challenges. The study looks at how three relatively high- profile institutions in competency-based education—Adams County School District 50, the Asia Society schools, and the School District of Philadelphia—implemented competency-based pathways in five school districts during the 2011–12 and 2012–13 school years.

Some of the findings echo much of what I observed through interviews with 13 schools in New Hampshire last year: competency-based education looks different in different contexts; schools implementing competency-based education face real technology challenges; and different students in such systems likely have different needs. The researchers took pains to try to isolate the effects of competency-based based education on student outcomes and dropout rates, but in some cases where unable to find statistically significant differences.

The study itself is a great read, but it also confirmed the tensions inherent in trying to study competency-based approaches.

(Next page: Three competency-based questions to consider)

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