Incubator of Innovation: How One State Supports District Flexibility to Explore Competency-Based Approaches

By Cora Goldston

October 18, 2018

Students at Kankakee High School

This is the second article in a series about the Illinois competency-based education pilot. To learn more about the pilot and the Midwest Comprehensive Center’s support, check out our first blog post.

Through competency-based education (CBE), schools can offer students flexibility and individualized support to help them meet rigorous college and career-ready learning goals. CBE can encompass learning in different settings, including online courses, and work-based learning, or enable students to learn at a flexible pace. Rather than prioritizing seat time or course requirements, CBE emphasizes mastery of key concepts and skills to prepare students for future postsecondary learning or training, and the workforce. Students can demonstrate mastery by applying their knowledge to complex, real-world tasks. In addition to earning academic credit, many CBE schools also offer students the opportunity to earn industry-recognized credentials.

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) is undertaking a pilot in which districts are encouraged to innovate by designing, implementing, and refining their own CBE models. The first cohort of 10 sites began developing and implementing CBE models in the 2017/18 school year, and the second cohort of sites is underway as of fall 2018.

Pilot districts have the flexibility to create models that work for their unique contexts; for example, districts may choose to implement CBE in different grade levels or academic content areas. Districts may also choose how to assess student mastery of competencies and how to prepare teachers and administrators for CBE implementation.

The Midwest Comprehensive Center (MWCC) is supporting ISBE’s efforts by providing expertise, technical training, guidance, and networking opportunities to CBE pilot districts. We spoke with Mary Reynolds, Executive Director of Innovation & Secondary Transformation at ISBE, to find out more about ISBE’s goals and the state’s collaboration with MWCC.

How is ISBE’s role shifting as districts begin piloting innovative competency-based approaches?

ISBE provides ongoing support and coordination to the pilot sites. Districts are accustomed to asking the state for permission to try innovative approaches to education. In this pilot, ISBE is actively encouraging pilot districts to try something new and is paving the way to make innovation possible. ISBE wants to move from compliance mode to acting as a thought partner and supporting districts as they try promising approaches. The state superintendent sees the pilot districts as incubators of innovation—he’s encouraging districts to push the boundaries. Ultimately, we want to support creative thinking and innovative approaches for all districts.

How is MWCC partnering with ISBE and the pilot districts?

MWCC is integral to ISBE’s major supports, and the center has been instrumental in bringing resources to the table. Those resources include coaching sessions, book studies, in-person events, periodic webinars, and national speakers who can provide seasoned perspectives on the most promising CBE approaches. (Check out our first blog post for more details on MWCC’s pilot support.)

What are some key takeaways that ISBE has gleaned from the pilot’s first year?

The Illinois School Code’s statutory requirements are often overwhelming for districts. The CBE pilot allows districts and schools to identify the barriers preventing them from supporting students in achieving deeper learning and mastering rigorous competencies. As pilot districts are thinking about these challenges, we’re seeing that the requirements themselves are not the major barriers. Rather, the conventional approaches to meet statutory requirements often limit deep content learning. While the CBE pilot allows for flexibility to move away from certain requirements, it may also inspire districts to look at the intent behind statutory requirements in a new way.

The beauty of this pilot is that there isn’t one “right” approach to CBE. Pilot districts are doing what makes sense for their communities. For example, two districts are applying CBE to all incoming freshmen this fall. Other districts are rolling out CBE by subject for all students at the school. Districts are taking thoughtful approaches to scaffold their CBE pilots.

The pilot districts are spread out across the state, and there’s diversity in the size and demographics of the districts. For other districts that may be reluctant about adopting CBE, this diversity can show them that CBE can work in different contexts. While there is some trepidation and caution about moving forward with CBE, excitement is the predominant sentiment within pilot districts and around the state.

How is the second cohort of pilot schools preparing to implement CBE?

The second cohort has the benefit of talking to districts from the first cohort about their planning and implementation experiences. Because the second cohort districts will have the chance to learn from their peers, ISBE is encouraging the second cohort to dive in and start CBE implementation. In addition, ISBE opened the application process again for the second cohort to maximize the number of districts participating. Additional districts will begin the pilot this fall.

What does ISBE envision for the future of CBE in Illinois, both for the current pilot and future statewide implementation?

The benefit of having a pilot is having the state’s approval and support to explore. The pilot allows the state to scaffold CBE in Illinois, and participating districts can show their neighbors how CBE can work in differing communities and school contexts. Educators love to see ideas that spark change—they value the opportunity to try something innovative and think differently. CBE provides flexibility for teachers as well as students. CBE is learner-focused, and learners include both students and teachers.

Photo: Students at Kankakee High School, which is participating in the Illinois competency-based education pilot. (Credit: ISBE)