Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

How Teachers Can Make Competency-Based Education the New Normal

By Mary Tkatchov — November 08, 2017 4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE

I failed every math class that I took in high school the first time around. I was not a bad student, but I struggled with mathematics and became less motivated with each poor test score. When my teachers forced me to retake the classes during summer school, something revolutionary happened: I became an A-plus student. Being able to focus solely on one subject gave me more time to process the concepts, and I had different teachers who presented the material in new ways. More time for learning combined with different teaching methods resulted in drastically different outcomes.

Although spending my summers retaking math classes seemed like a miserable punishment at the time, I now realize I was fortunate to have had teachers who wouldn’t let me skate by with the lowest passing grade and proceed to the next math class. The course of my life could have been drastically different if the domino effect of low expectations had spared me summer school, but also prevented me from entering college prepared—or entering at all.

Despite my own experience, when I became the teacher giving out the grades, I passed many students who were not even close to proficient in important academic skills. I often felt significant pressure from students, parents, and administrators to give students who were on the borderline between passing and failing the chance to make up points and move on. Our current education system also perpetuates passing levels that are below proficiency. Students who scrape by with a D—or even a required C in some core classes—are not necessarily ready to move on to the next course. There are also other factors aside from knowing the material that help students achieve a grade, such as participation points and ungraded assignments.

My current work in curriculum development for higher education courses has given me the space for reflection I so badly needed as a teacher. I realize now that it’s better to fail students and let them repeat a course than it is to send them on with major gaps in academic development—gaps that can become insurmountable as time goes on. For those students hovering between a pass and a fail, a teacher’s decisions can make all the difference.

The Problem With Efficiency-Based Classrooms

Unfortunately, our education system is based on efficiency, not proficiency, leaving little room for teachers to address the needs of individual learners. Students are grouped by age into grade levels and given a fixed amount of time to learn what they can before moving on, even though there are huge inequities in achievement. Too many students skate by without learning what they need to know, while advanced learners remain stagnant to keep pace with the rest of their classmates. Students are then artificially labeled as at, above, or below grade level.

According to a 2017 report from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, varied learning outcomes are inevitable in our current set-up, and there is so much more we should be doing to address equity and diversity in student learning and achievement. Historically, we educators have lowered our expectations and perpetuated a shaky foundation for building new knowledge because the system allows, even compels, us to do so. Teachers may feel limited in their power to confront what they’re up against, but the consequences of our participation in this system make it necessary to address these problems.

Consider that reading instruction, during which children learn how to read, tends to end after 3rd grade, and that by 4th grade, children are expected to read to learn in all other subjects. As a result, children who are not reading proficiently by 3rd grade are likely to struggle as they progress into higher grades and are at increased risk of dropping out of high school. On the other end of the spectrum, advanced learners also suffer long-term consequences when they aren’t taught material that will push them.

I did not think I was in a position to change what was wrong with this efficiency-centered model, but teachers are not powerless. In the book TEACHERPRENEURS: Innovative Teachers Who Lead but Don’t Leave, authors Barnett Berry, Ann Byrd, and Alan Wieder define the concept of the “teacherpreneur” as an innovative teacher who leads school change by their actions in and outside of the classroom. Teachers, not policymakers, should be the ones calling the shots, because we possess the professional expertise and the commitment to students’ well-being.

A Return to Individualized Student Learning

While massive restructuring of a school system might be the ultimate goal, how can teachers make immediate changes that could affect students in positive ways?

They can initiate conversations with school administrators and colleagues about strategies for making education more learner-centered. They can base their own grading policies solely on assessment of learning outcomes and not let participation points and extra credit fill in the gaps. They can learn from assessment data to pinpoint the students who need extra instructional supports and allow for assignment resubmissions so that students can learn from their mistakes and try again. Teachers can also communicate to parents and students that having to retake assessments or even a whole course is not a punishment. The message should be loud and clear that the extra time and support is for students’ benefit.

Finally, teachers need to acknowledge that students have a range of abilities and learn at different paces. Teachers can advocate for more targeted professional training and supports to meet their students’ individual learning needs. They can share their own insights about differentiated student learning with colleagues.

The problems in education are not going to be solved all at once, but starting a conversation now about practical, immediate changes can jump-start the development of a more equitable system for all learners.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Law & Courts Webinar
The Future of Criminal Justice Reform: A Sphere Education Initiative Conversation
America’s criminal justice system is in crisis and calls for reform are dominating the national debate. Join Cato’s Sphere Education Initiative and Education Week for a webinar on criminal justice and policing featuring the nation’s
Content provided by Cato Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Juliana Urtubey, an Elementary Special Educator, Is the 2021 National Teacher of the Year
Known as Ms. Earth for her work with school gardens, Urtubey is a National Board-certified teacher in Las Vegas.
4 min read
Juliana Urtubey
Juliana Urtubey
Courtesy Photo
Teaching Profession 4 Ways Districts Are Giving Teachers More Flexibility in Their Jobs
After a year-plus of pandemic schooling, some experts are seeing momentum for district leaders to reimagine what teaching can look like.
11 min read
Teacher working at home in front of camera.
Getty
Teaching Profession Why Teachers Leave—or Don't: A Look at the Numbers
New EdWeek survey results reveal why teachers consider leaving the profession, and how the pandemic has changed their decisionmaking.
6 min read
v40 32 Teacher Retention INTRO DATA
Stephanie Shafer for Education Week<br/>
Teaching Profession We Asked Teachers How They Want to Be Appreciated. Here's What They Said
All they need is respect, independence, a break, and a heartfelt word of thanks after a difficult year.
3 min read
Image shows a teacher in a classroom.
skynesher/E+