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How Teachers Can Make Competency-Based Education the New Normal

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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.

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