Use Competency- Based Learning to Promote Student Equity

Jul 21, 2023 2:36:56 PM

by Dr. Jeff Dillon, Superintendent

The telltale signs of a student who was up late at night working a part-time job are impossible to miss: shuffling down the hallway as they head to their first class, sporting bed-head hair and bags the size of ocean-steamer trunks under their bloodshot eyes. This invariably leads to low performance in the classroom, with sleep-deprived students falling hopelessly behind as they balance the needs of supporting their families and going to school. This is unfortunately par for the course for a disproportionate number of marginalized students, such as BIPOC and LGBTQ, as well as those in high-poverty districts across the country. And unless we as educators do something about it, students are doomed to fail.

Flip the Model for Student Equity

It doesn’t have to be this way. For school districts that care more about student competency and less about seat time, personalized competency-based learning holds the key to ensuring all students - especially those from marginalized communities - have an equal opportunity to gain mastery. The traditional structure holds that time is constant and learning is questionable. That is, if you sit in a classroom long enough, you may excel and get a good grade. But if not, we’ll probably pass you anyway with a “D” and hope you do better next time.

Personalized competency-based learning – like we’ve implemented in my Idaho district, where many students need to work after hours to help support their families – flips that model, where learning is the constant and time is variable.

Students come to school each day knowing they’ll learn – and if they need more time to understand a concept, that’s okay. If they’d rather watch more online lessons and check in with the teacher after watching a lesson to discuss a concept, we can do that.

All students come to high school with varying levels of mastery and different learning styles. Some might be more auditory or visual in nature, while others learn by doing. Personalized competency-based learning empowers students to have a voice in their learning. Students can choose the type of learning that will take place, and they can change it up as their needs evolve. In a history class, for example, students can take lessons online or they might choose a blended model that combines in-person lectures. With a system built for flexibility, we’ve removed traditional system structures in our district. We don’t even have bells that mark traditional 45-minute periods.

Building Flexibility for Teachers

When you take out traditional structures, it becomes very flexible for teachers. Every student works at their own pace, so teachers no longer have to stand at the head of the class for 15-20 minutes lecturing on a new lesson. Instead, students come in, pick up where they left off the day before, and engage teachers as needed. Students value their time, and we value their learning; personalized competency-based learning combines the two.

Competency-based learning is a game-changer for students learning English as a second language in our district.

Instead of pulling students out of “regular” classes and putting them in a special program, language learning is blended into their everyday courses. This way, students are constantly working on language and, as a result, developing robust English skills. Competency-based learning gives students the flexibility necessary to acquire the language in a way that would be impossible using traditional learning models.

Going back to the sleep-deprived student who was up late working, they can go back to bed and come to school when they’ve caught up on sleep. No, really. Personalized competency-based learning enables us to tell those working past midnight students that they don’t have to be in school at 7:30 a.m. Instead, come in at 9:30 a.m. We know that they’ll be learning that day and stay on track because we’re empowering them to stay motivated. More often than not, they’ll get their work done because we’re giving them the tools they need to manage their lives and education simultaneously. This helps develop invaluable executive functioning skills that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

One remarkable aspect of personalized competency-based learning is that despite the occasional lapses in judgment inherent in childhood, the pathway for learning remains unchanged. Even through moments of poor adolescent decision-making and the consequences that follow, learning has persevered.

Students are trained to learn, and we empower them with the tools to create goals and manage those goals to succeed.

Our holistic model emphasizes the cultivation of habits of mind – a concept rooted in the work of Bena Kallick and Art Costa – which has proved invaluable in teaching students how to manage impulsivity and compulsivity, strive for accuracy, and foster collaborative support. Sometimes students need a moment to collect themselves, so our approach has that flexibility. It’s essential to remember that education is about learning, not blindly following rules every moment of the day. With this approach, we’ve seen students be able to collect themselves and return to their coursework quickly.

Get Buy-In

In Idaho, we’re fortunate to have a state school code that allows us to be a mastery-based system where we focus on content standards and students mastering those standards. Our district focuses less on test scores and more on building a solid foundation to earn credits, excel in classes, and achieve a high GPA.

Focusing on these key benefits and outcomes makes it easier to sell competency-based learning to a skeptical audience. However, as with anything, a few things need to be in place: a school board that agrees this is the best model for their students, an administration with the capacity to lead transformation, and a support system committed to making this model work. School districts must also realize this is hard work; there might be missteps along the way. But if everyone works together and learns from each other, they will reap the rewards.

The End Game

In our district, we take pride in the fact that all our students are well-prepared for life, equipped to pursue a college education or learn the trade of their choice. Instead of focusing on a select few for college, we prioritize readiness for various pathways, ensuring our students have the necessary skills to thrive. Personalized competency-based learning has helped our staff and students focus on what we value – learning and success.

Dr. Jeff Dillon, Superintendent

Dr. Jeff Dillon has served as the superintendent of the Wilder School District in Wilder, Idaho for the past 10 years. During his tenure in the district, he has successfully turned around a targeted failing, rural, 100% free and reduced lunch, school-wide Title 1 elementary school. Dillon received Apple’s ConnectED grant award, and his district was identified as one of the top 25 most innovative districts in the nation. He was awarded the AASA Learning 2025 Demonstration System as an exemplary successful innovative district for others to model after. Dillon is a member of the Institute for Education Innovation, a national school superintendent think tank driving change in education.

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