Piloting New Paths to Graduation Using Competency-Based Education

By Cora Goldston

May 17, 2018

Staff from Illinois pilot districts brainstorm at a CBE event.Students come to school with unique strengths, interests, and learning styles. With that in mind, many states across the country are exploring new opportunities for students to earn credit toward graduation. The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) is piloting one such strategy—competency-based education (CBE), which allows students to advance as they master the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college and careers. The Midwest Comprehensive Center (MWCC) is working with ISBE to support pilot districts and plan for statewide CBE implementation.

In a competency-based system, schools offer students greater flexibility and individualized support to help them meet learning goals. Students may learn at varying rates inside and outside the classroom, including in work-based or community settings. If students need more time, they can continue learning and receiving help without the time pressure of the semester ending. Regardless of the pace of their learning, students progress only after they demonstrate mastery of the competencies. In most CBE models, students must perform complex tasks to receive credit, applying what they have learned to solve real-world problems.

Illinois is piloting CBE at high schools across the state, ranging from single-building, rural districts to large urban districts. In fall 2017, the first cohort of 10 districts began planning, developing, and implementing opportunities for students to earn credit by demonstrating competency. Learn more about the first cohort of pilot districts.

“The competency-based model removes the constraints of ‘seat time’ and allows for student-driven learning,” said State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith, PhD. “This approach can make education more relevant both to students and to local employers. When students leave our schools, they should leave with the keys to open multiple doors, any of which can lead to a successful future.”

Pilot districts have the freedom to choose which subjects will have competency-based credit options and how districts will assess whether a student has demonstrated competency. Wendy Surr, senior researcher for MWCC, notes that district autonomy is crucial for future CBE implementation.

“ISBE’s goal is to support pilot districts as incubators of innovation. The state wants to offer sites as much room and flexibility as possible to innovate, so they can learn what works and develop guidance for statewide CBE rollout.”

Each pilot district has a unique strategy for designing and implementing competency-based learning and teaching. Proviso East High School is piloting CBE demonstration classrooms in several subjects to explore how competency-based credit might work across all content areas. In the 2018–19 school year, all freshmen classes at Proviso East will be competency-based, and the school will expand CBE to higher level classes over the next few years. Other districts are implementing CBE in specific subjects. For example, Ridgewood Community High School is using competency-based learning in all its math courses. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is interested in how CBE might benefit learners in different settings. It is piloting CBE in six different high school contexts, including two selective enrollment schools, a high school that specializes in preparing special education students for postgraduation transitions, a neighborhood high school, and a school located in a juvenile detention facility.

MWCC has been a key partner with ISBE in this work. MWCC is providing “guideposts and resources” to support pilot districts as they learn, design, and refine their local CBE models, Surr explains. “One of the biggest ways that MWCC is supporting this effort is by connecting pilot sites with national CBE experts.”

MWCC has introduced pilot districts to an array of CBE approaches, and connected sites with experts who can offer consultation and guidance, including the following:

  • Facilitating a CBE in Action webinar series to share examples of successful CBE initiatives. Webinar presenters included staff from Pittsfield Middle High School in New Hampshire, which has implemented CBE, and Kim Carter, executive director of the QED Foundation and Distinguished Fellow at Students at the Center.
  • Hosting a five-session book study with Rose Colby, author of Competency-Based Education: A New Architecture for K–12 Schooling. Participating district staff read chapters and have facilitated discussions about takeaways for implementing CBE in their contexts. In the future, there also will be a second book study; some participants from the first book study will share what they have learned and cofacilitate discussions with the new cohort of CBE sites.
  • Bringing in CBE experts to serve as coaches for the pilot sites. Each interested pilot district identified goals to work toward with its coaches. The experts and district staff have virtual coaching sessions to make plans and accomplish their goals, such as devising new grading systems or developing competencies in a specific subject area.

MWCC has also hosted multiple in-person meetings for pilot sites:

  • In September 2017, MWCC and ISBE hosted a pilot kickoff meeting, which was attended by all 10 districts from the first cohort of the pilot and more than 70 educators and school leaders. The kickoff meeting featured framing from Dr. Smith and Chief Education Officer Libia Gil, PhD. Pilot districts learned about key features of successful CBE implementation from three national experts, and they discussed priorities, challenges, and new ideas.
  • In February 2018, representatives of pilot sites met again to dive more deeply into personalized learning strategies and performance assessment. This event featured Colby and Carter. More than 80 educators and school leaders attended the event.
  • ISBE and MWCC are now planning a third convening for June 2018. This event will offer more intensive, hands-on training on designing alternative school schedules, increasing the rigor of learning and assessment tasks, developing personalized learning plans, and designing project-based learning opportunities. This event will feature national expert and author Karin Hess, EdD, and Andrea Stewart and Jen Sigrist, codirectors of the new Iowa Center that focuses on learner-centered CBE.

“The Midwest Comprehensive Center has strengthened ISBE’s capacity to assist pilot districts in implementing innovative competency-based programs and to foster an open learning community,” said Mary Reynolds, executive director of innovation and secondary transformation for ISBE. “We are grateful for MWCC’s consultation and support in this work.” By connecting with experts in the field, MWCC is working to increase pilot sites’ knowledge and capacity to implement CBE.

In fall 2018, the second cohort of districts will begin piloting CBE. Five new districts have been selected to participate in the second pilot cohort; in addition, another group of CPS schools will participate. The districts in the second cohort will have several opportunities to learn from CBE experts, the first cohort, and one another. Surr emphasizes that the pilot is an opportunity for collaborative learning. “By giving districts flexibility to try competency-based education in different ways, this pilot allows the state and districts to work as partners as they explore together what 21st-century ‘schools’ can be.”

For more on Illinois’ CBE pilot, check out articles in the Chicago Tribune, Peoria Journal Star, and Rockford Register-Star.