‘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.”

Bill Sower is president of the Ann Arbor-based Christopher & Virginia Sower Center for Successful Schools.

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.

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 Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Fri, 03/24/2017 - 1:43pm

Have you investigated how schools are run in many European countries? My understanding is that they are less based on age and grade criteria and more geared to subject competency. This allows for promotion in areas that a student demonstrates mastery while they continue to work on areas that they don't - regardless of their age and the "grade" thing doesn't even enter the discussion. It seems that they offer a model that shows more success than ours. Why do we insist on beating our dead horse?

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 2:31pm

It sounds good but what do you do in an instance were someone is not progressing no matter how hard you try? Should someone of high school age be grouped with 2nd graders because they are not learning the basic material? I can see potential for all kinds of discipline problems mixing kids of vastly different ages together.

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 8:08am

My understanding is that things are on a much more individual basis so you don't have 16 year olds in classes with 7 year olds. They may use individual tutors, redial classes or other such. There is not the school assignment by zip code that we insist on. This ends up being a bummer for our sports infatuated society as they going to sports clubs rather than specific school teams as if schools are for learning!!! Ultimately not every student is not expected to achieve the same competency in each and every subject nor someone else's definition of success as we seem to kid ourselves

Bill Sower
Sat, 03/25/2017 - 9:38am

Thank you for your question. In a competency-based system, lower performing students are grouped with students of similar age and performance. We can then best provide them with the most important key to motivation: frequent and authentic success experiences. This requires a curriculum that is research-validated, designed for a competency-based system, and not grade based. For elementary English Language Arts, I recommend Reading Mastery https://www.mheonline.com/directinstruction/reading-mastery-signature-ed... as the core program, and Corrective Reading https://www.mheonline.com/directinstruction/corrective-reading/ as a remedial program for older students. Both are published by McGraw-Hill Education. (I have no connection to this company and do not recommend many of its products.)

Michigan Observer
Sun, 03/26/2017 - 5:36pm

Mr. Sower says, " In a competency-based system, lower performing students are grouped with students of similar age and performance. " Let's say that we had an elementary class of twenty students, and that five of them were significantly better performers than the rest, and that five of them were significantly poorer performers. According to Mr. Sower's criteria, you would now have three groups of students. What do you do with them? Assign a teacher to each group? Even if you grouped the better students with the average children, you have two groups to deal with. How would you do that?

He says of the lower performing students that we could now " best provide them with the most important key to motivation: frequent and authentic success experiences." How? And why couldn't you provide those experiences before?

Bill Sower
Sun, 03/26/2017 - 7:39pm

Thank you for your questions, "Michigan Observer." The logistics and resource allocations in a competency based system can be a bit challenging; however, unless the school is very small, they are entirely manageable by combining grades (for instance, second and third graders together, fourth and fifth graders together, etc. ) and by utilizing all available personnel.
The reason this system enhances success is that the instruction can be more strategically targeted to address students needs.

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 7:58pm

Is it about what people want to teach, present, be heard, or is about what students want to learn, hear, listen to.

It seems every article is about what should be push on students, why it should be push, and how much should be spent on pushing.

My concern is education/learning is much like a rope, pushing the rope, no matter how many people are pushing or what quality the rope, you are unlikely to get it where you want it to go. However, if you can get someone pulling the 'rope' it takes few and less stringent people pulling.

I see the students as the ones that need to be pulling the 'rope' of learning/education and when they are pulling it is better for everyone.

I wonder if anyone is asking what the students want to learn and why. Is anyone asking the successful students why and how they are succeeding, is anyone asking the failing students why and how they are failing? Is anyone listening to the students [all young and old]?

My best guess if we can find the student's interest and tap into it we will get them pulling the 'rope'. I wonder if those teachers feel like their successful students are pulling on the 'rope' of learning/education or if they are simply waiting for it to be pushed to the them by the teacher.

A. Hunt
Sun, 03/26/2017 - 4:57am

In the 1920's, when my parents were in elementary school in Kalamazoo, the school year and grade levels were divided into half years. A child did not start school with children nearly a year older than himself, only a half year, and if he needed to be held back, or promoted to skip a "grade" it was only by a half year. This seems much kinder and better calibrated to meet the individual needs of the students. As for the children setting the curriculum to what "they want to learn" and letting them "facilitate" the process, a smart teacher should be able to design lessons around those interests, but students usually don't know what they don't yet know and need to know. Shouldn't the adults be in charge?

Sun, 03/26/2017 - 4:28pm

There are studies and anecdotal information that confirms, how especially in the early years a 6 or more month differential is significant. Outlier by Malcolm Gladwell does a nice job of putting this in perspective.

It seems that if the educational system were more student focused they would build in the flexibility to accommodate such differences in student needs/capacities. The impact can be noticed from two aspects, the teacher/school attitude and from the course introduction. Ask any October child if there is a difference.

Bill Sower
Sun, 03/26/2017 - 9:47am

Point of clarification: The headline (which I did not write) says my commentary is about "ending social promotion," an idea that assumes that our K-12 grading system is rational, that current curricula and instructional methods are effective, and that students simply need to be held accountable for advancing themselves to the next grade. But this is not the point of my article. We need to completely re-imagine our system of K through 12 grades and honestly confront the ineffectiveness of our current instructional methods... because they are clearly not working. Teachers are capable and dedicated. Students are ready to learn. Our current structure of education is failing them all.

Mon, 03/27/2017 - 2:38pm

Mr. Sower,

Thank you for reading comments and engaging readers. You are doing something that is a rarity.

I understand and appreciate the value of re-imaging K-12. What I have found is that it is good for longer-term results, it can create build a strategy and path to those results. It does have limitations, it usually entails drastic changes and unless it is done in a culture of change it can be very difficult for the effort to have an immediate impact.

What I would encourage is to find a district or even a single school that is willing to change and work with them to look around to see what works and adapt it to immediate needs. An example of this, are the high/middle school athletic teams, looking at how they use special coaches [even drawing in volunteers] to focus team members and to turn good practices into habits that lead to better performance and change attitudes.

There are many non-K-12 organizations that are active in engaging people to take ownership of their roles/responsibilities, and provide training to expand local knowledge and skills. I would encourage involving people from those organizations to gain different perspectives on educational/learning issues/problems/barriers.

Dave Maxwell
Sun, 03/26/2017 - 12:52pm

Great step....now if only the students who have mastered the meterials can move to the next level when ready, not when school is ready...

Dave Peterson
Sun, 03/26/2017 - 1:52pm

If our schools were really interested in evidence based practices, struggling readers would automatically be enrolled in direct instruction reading programs. Educators have been aware of the progress students show in the DI curriculum for years....but nothing ever happens.

Bob Sornson
Sun, 03/26/2017 - 4:15pm

Thanks to Bill for advancing the discussion! As the author of Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency Based Learning to Transform Our Schools, and Essential Math Skills (PK to Grade 3), Fanatically Formative, and many other publications on Competency Based Learning, I ask you to keep the conversation rolling.

Our nation has made no gains on national 12th grade learning outcomes since we first recorded data using the NAEP in the early 1970s. None! All the school reform initiatives of the last several decades have been for naught. Blaming the teachers, parents, or kids won't help. It is a systems issue.

My series of articles in CommunityWorks can be accessed for free. Start with this one: https://medium.com/communityworksjournal/hasnt-worked-can-t-work-won-t-w...

Barry Visel
Mon, 03/27/2017 - 10:44am

I've written this comment before and I'll write it again. We had two "special needs" children go through the public school system. Both had IEP's (individualized education plans). Our third child had regular education with no such individualized plan. I've often wondered why we don't have IEP's for all students and scrap the K-12 grade system. I've also wondered how students are allowed to move ahead when they haven't mastered the material. I read statistics about entering college students that require remedial classes and wonder, how were they allowed to graduate from high school?