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‘Competency-based’ learning should end social promotion of unprepared students

Thanks to the work of Gov. Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission, we now have a clearer pathway to improving Michigan’s alarmingly low K-12 learning outcomes. I especially appreciate the commission’s focus in its final report on the most intractable obstacle to school reform: our ubiquitous but entirely illogical – and often cruel – system of moving students from one grade to the next, based almost solely on their age. According to the commission, this system “creates needless instructional complexity for educators, and means that meeting each student where she or he is academically and developmentally is virtually impossible.”

Every year, educators face a devil’s choice: promote students to the next grade who are unprepared to succeed at that level, or retain (flunk) them. Since nearly all students move ahead regardless of their performance, many lack the incentive to perform above a minimum level.

To confront this absurdity, the commission boldly recommends that schools move to a “competency-based” system, “...a model (also called mastery-based or proficiency-based) whereby students advance in the curriculum only once they have mastered the content. This is in contrast with the current system, whereby students are advanced after the passage of time, for instance, a school year.”

Years ago, a report entitled Prisoners of Time from the Education Commission of the States warned against our current, age-based system: “Decades of school improvement efforts have foundered on a fundamental design flaw, the assumption that learning can be doled out by the clock and defined by the calendar. Our usage of time virtually assures the failure of many students. Fixing the design flaw means that grouping children by age should become a thing of the past.”

This does not mean that we necessarily throw out the current system. Each year in Macomb County’s Roseville Community Schools, elementary students move from one grade to the next, just like students in other districts. However, every morning, for their instruction in English language arts, students “walk-to-read” into groups based on their current level of performance. This may sound like “tracking,” a discredited method that traps lower performing students in dumbed-down, dead-end curricular tracks. In the “walk-to-read” approach, everyone is on the same track. It’s just that each student begins at the level where they can be most successful.

The groups are flexible. Students move at their own rate. Adults continuously review performance data. Some students may demonstrate that they need more time, and some may move ahead faster. But the goal is for all students to achieve proficiency.

Lower-performing groups are accelerated as much as possible using smaller groups, more time, and the strongest teachers. The point is that students are never subjected to a curriculum for which they are unprepared to succeed.  

The commission also stresses the critical need for “evidence-based practices.” For a competency-based system, this requires research-validated instructional programs that are specifically designed for competency and not grade-based.

Whatever program is selected, it should be carefully designed to provide step-by-step instruction, appropriate pacing, opportunities for all students to respond, modeling and practicing, feedback (including immediate but non-shaming correction of student errors), clear instructional wording, positive reinforcement, and continuous checking for understanding. This systematic approach is not always popular in schools, but it works best to maintain student engagement and to ensure learning. This is especially critical for Michigan’s many students whose learning is imperiled by adverse childhood experiences, including the stress and trauma of poverty, violence, racism and family dysfunction. It is simply the best way to build the essential, foundational skills that massive numbers of Michigan’s students currently lack.

In many of the classrooms I visit now as a consultant for low-performing schools, teachers tell me that the curriculum fails to address their students’ actual needs in reading, language, math and writing. But they are, nevertheless, required to follow the curriculum, or they risk losing their jobs.  

Hundreds of Michigan’s teachers have told me – often with tears in their eyes – that they anguish over their students’ lack of success.  

They want to provide the kind of instruction they know their students need.

They are desperate for discipline strategies that work.

They are sick of having to make the devil’s choice in our irrational, age-based system of grades.

Most of all, they want their students to succeed.  They need and deserve the proper tools for this job: strong, evidence-based instructional programs; effective behavior management strategies; and a competency-based system to assure their students achieve proficiency.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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