The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act has sparked debate about alternative education programs for states. Policymakers are currently convening to explore ways in which schools can be incentivized to improve rather than be forced to improve, regarding title IV funding. Both sides of the aisle are interested in investing in non-traditional learning models, with a greater focus on outcomes vs. access to education.

Competency-based programs have been around since the 1970s, but have evolved with a greater emphasis on mentorship, tracking of progress (metrics), and focus on integration with current workforce trends. Currently, the federal government has approved waivers to allow for financial aid for students in competency-based programs, while growth of these models continue to increase in higher ed institutions across the nation.

We met with Ray McNulty, veteran educator, administrator, and education reform expert, to answer some common questions about how to develop metrics for monitoring competency-based programs:

Q: First off, how does this system work?

A: Instead of measuring learning by hours spent in the classroom, a competency-based learning system measures student learning by the level of understanding a student has for a certain subject. Students progress at their own pace, and only advance to the next lesson or course if they have mastered that specific set of skills, better preparing students for career and college readiness.

Q: Is the value proposition of competency-based model enough to disrupt the current traditional model for learning?

A: The education system we see today was built through a proficiency-based model. Unfortunately, the proficiency-based model doesn't actually measure what a student can do. Students move on with the rest of the class even if they haven't fully understood a concept, meaning they can graduate with a B average, not having mastered the course content. A competency-based model has a higher standard for student learning, and both pure online learning and a blended model of online and instructor-led learning allow for competency-based programs to work. If implemented, students could come out of school with full mastery of sets of skills based on their chosen area of study, which would be much more attractive to employers, and better prepare students for real jobs. This new model is linked to what having a job in the workforce is like; it prepares students to work until the job is done, and done well. Competency education also takes advantage of sophisticated and flexible blended and online learning environments, so students can enjoy a personalized and convenient learning experience. So yes--in theory, the value proposition of this model should be enough to disrupt the current system. However, we have several road-blocks to overcome first before meaningful policy in support of scaling up this model can be fully supported.

Q: Indeed, competency-based programs will need federal funding. The big questions is, how can the government, states, and school districts monitor and measure outcomes within existing regulatory structures?

A: First of all some of the assessment structures in place today to monitor student work will need to change, because they are time-based and ignore the individual needs of the student. Competency-based learning is all about a system of instruction, assessment, grading and reporting where students show mastery based on demonstrations and assessments of their learning rather than the amount of time they spend studying the material. The strength of competency-based educational programs is that they encourage accelerated learning among students who master academic materials quickly while providing additional instructional support time for students who need it.

Schools will need to work with teachers to build out a set of competency maps. This will mean articulating the standards students would need to achieve under this new model. These new standards would be different than today's assessments-based model. In schools today, assessments and standardized tests have little to no significance to the students, because it does not prepare students for mastery of a skill. New standards under a competency-based model would judge a student's level of comprehension of a subject by having the student share their work with a teacher. Students won't move on until they've mastered a subject.

Q: The pass-fail model makes it difficult to measure mastery or identify students who are struggling, but targeted assessments could help. Can you discuss the metrics used to track student progress through mentorship? How can this model be adopted?

A: School districts will work with teachers to build lists of what students will need to achieve. Teachers can then tailor these lists with each individual student. Instead of studying for tests, students will study to learn material, and work until they can accomplish a skill, based on what skills schools will deem necessary. Teachers will build out competency maps so student learning is sequenced like a videogame: a player cannot advance to the next level until they have completed all the necessary tasks for level one. A level-based system is an incredibly powerful and motivational learning tool. Students will build upon the skills they have mastered until they have full understanding of a subject. Teachers would work one-on-one with students if a student is stuck on a particular concept or lesson. Through tracking student progress with online learning management systems, teachers can easily track individual student progress and see where a student is having trouble.

The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is the perfect time for politicians to meet and discuss ways in which the government can incentivize these school districts to adopt this model. Educators will need to be retrained in order to develop new competency maps and being able to sustain and manage the system. Over 30 states are changing their regulations from time-based to competency-based learning. It's time all states work to abolish time-based education.

Q: Can you share a few helpful resources for our readers on this issue?

A: There are many different scholarly reports, foundations, statewide initiatives, and campaigns supporting the design and implementation of competency learning. Check these links out to learn more:

School district and online providers are scaling up together as partners. Learn more about partnering with an education provider to implement competency-based learning at your school.

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Resources: Photo credit. (1) Why is Measuring Learning so Difficult? (2) Assessing Competency-Bases Education in Terms of Outcomes (3) The Time is Ripe for Competency-Based Higher Ed (4) New Breath of Life for the Youth PROMISE Act (5) It's Time to Reimagine No Child Left Behind (6) How Should Quality Assurance for Competency-Based Ed Work? (7) How Should Quality Assurance for Competency-Based Ed Work? (8) Keeping Up With Competency (9) Competency-Based Education Not a Fad