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Utah Education Leaders Consider Competency

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Co-authored with Karla Phillips

Utah legislators, state board members, K-12 and higher education leaders convened for a Joint Education Conference on the beautiful campus of Southern Utah University to discuss competency-based education as well as plan overall next steps for Utah's K-20 education system. The two day meeting covered an interesting combination of proposals for both system improvement and innovation.

State Superintendent Brad Smith vigorously made a case for the education leaders in the room to address the "deep crisis" of underperformance. "We know we have a system that has to change. That I don't think we can gainsay," Smith said. "We have to be willing to engage in a fearless conversation about what change we'll make, and it will entail removing things that we've always done and asking whether they're effective. There's always pain in that process; I understand that. However, the moral imperative of our work demands it."

The conference featured a lively backchannel at #UTeduConf (a trending topic on Twitter).

An Innovation Agenda. We opened the meeting with a description of the path forward: blended, personalized, and competency-based learning. We noted that hundreds of next-gen learning models make us optimistic about the potential to dramatically boost achievement and completion and shared numerous examples across the country. As Chris Sturgis of CompetencyWorks noted recently more than a third of states are making progress on competency-based education.

We shared iNACOL's working definition of high quality competency education:

  • Students advance upon mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

Jaime Casap, Google's Chief Education Evangelist, posed a series of questions and scenarios designed to help the audience realize how much innovation has already occurred in just the past 20-30 years and how difficult it will be to predict what is yet to come. Although a frequent topic in education circles is how to prepare our students to be college and career ready, Jaime reminded us that we don't even know what jobs will exist in the future. He believes that instead of asking students what they want to be when they grow up, we should be asking them what kind of problems they would want to solve? This approach will require us to rethink how we educate our students.

It was equally encouraging to hear presentations throughout the day from a variety of Utah leaders who are already innovating and transforming their school districts, job training programs, and universities.

An Improvement Agenda. The conversation shifted to a more general prioritization of actions Utah should make to improve student outcomes. Mark Tucker, NCEE, told the group that despite more than doubling investment the US lags world leaders in achievement, equity, and efficiency. He laid out a gloomy predicament of global competition and the extinction of low skill jobs.

Tucker said while there are no silver bullets, there is a formula that top performers execute:

  1. They invest more money on hard to educate than easy to educate students;
  2. They provide strong support for young children;
  3. There is a strong, coherent instructional systems with similar expectations for all students;
  4. Teachers are recruited from the top half of their college class; they know content, and master their craft before meeting high licensure standards.
  5. Schools are professionally managed with career ladders, collaborative time to work together, and critiqued practice.

Does a strategy of improvement and best practices conflict with an innovation agenda? It shouldn't. This is an area where education can indeed learn from business.

Every company strives to balance the priorities of continuous improvement with research and development; similarly, every state, district and school has to find the right balance of improvement and innovation. The key is to appreciate that although the priorities may be competing they are not conflicting. They are equal in importance.

For example, teacher preparation and professional development is consistently raised as a top priority. Fortunately this agenda is not in conflict. As noted in Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning, educators deserve the same innovative approach: blended, personalized, competency-based learning.

Similarly, Improving Conditions & Careers: How Blended Learning Can Improve the Teaching Profession , demonstrates that new learning models encourages differentiated staffing including new teacher leadership roles. Better conditions, more collaboration, and new advancement opportunities are helping to professionalize the teaching profession. At the end of the day, focusing on educator development should always be a critical component of system improvement as well as a lynchpin to innovative models.

We shared five potential next steps for Utah education leaders:

  1. Flexibility from Time Based Systems. Eliminate policies that tie the award of credit to the amount of minutes spent in a classroom and provide flexibility from mandatory time-based attendance reporting requirements as well as required 180-day annual calendars and fixed amounts of daily instructional minutes per day.
  1. Facilitate Higher Education Acceptance. Develop a certification or other assurance that higher education will recognize for competency-based diplomas.
  1. Transition to Proficiency-Based Diplomas. Amend graduation requirements to require that diplomas must be competency-based and specifically preclude the use of seat-time for credit acquisition and redefine course and credit requirements as competencies.
  1. Create Innovation Districts and Schools. To empower innovative leaders who already have a clear vision for transition to a competency based system, states can authorize a competency-based pilot.
  1. Encourage Anytime, Anywhere Learning. Encourage learning out-of-school, after-school, and before school activities. Eliminate policies that impede a school's ability to award credit for extended learning opportunities.

Utah house and senate education leaders are to be commended for organizing a thoughtful two day education policy dialog with fellow legislators, the state board and superintendent, and higher education leaders. With the excitement and commitment I witnessed throughout the conference, I look forward to seeing their next move.

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