School eyes competency-based education
by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · October 04, 2013

Sandra Dop wants schools steeped in competency-based education — with learning standards couched in hands-on activities or real-world experiences.

In fact, the 21st Century Skills consultant with the Iowa Department of Education calls it a dream.

While visiting schools with a CBE curriculum, she saw young pupils counting pennies to equal a dollar — rather than just counting to 100 — and older children studying a city to the point that they could man a booth and tell visitors why they should move there.

Dop, Iowa’s director of Competency-Based Education Collaborative, said these activities take pupils beyond memorizing facts to learning things out of necessity so that they may solve a bigger problem.

Dop, speaking to a small crowd of parents and educators Sept. 25 at West Branch High School, said CBE is personalized, standards-based education that connects to each pupil’s passions.

“We know we are doing well if we’re held to some kind of standard,” she said.

She said traditional grading systems give grades collectively, based on how well the pupil did at the beginning, middle and end of the quarter. On the other hand, CBE — like West Branch’s standards-based grading — records grades throughout the quarter, but awards the best grade on each standard.

To make a stark example, she projected three sets of grades on the overhead screen. Student A scored 88 to 95 percent on five tests; Student B scored 40 percent on their first and 100 percent on their last; and Student C scored 70, then 40, then three 100s in a row.

“Who do you want to pack your parachute?” she asked. “The student who packs it correctly 95 percent of the time?”

Dop asked the audience to turn to a nearby person and ask what they do well, and how they learned to do it. While the skills varied, Dop was more interested in the “how,” to which she got answers like “reading and doing,” “classroom and on-the-job,” “go do it,” “necessity,” and “passion.”

She said CBE uses each of those to get pupils engaged.

Dop said Iowa is trying to get away from the Carnegie Unit — which public education has used for a hundred years — that said students need 120 hours on each subject to show colleges that they have learned the subject enough to take post-secondary courses. Colleges needed a streamlined method for measuring student proficiency, she said.

“But we don’t need kids sitting in a seat if they already know it,” she said.

She said CBE allows accredited teachers, in their respective subjects, to allow children to skip lessons — or even entire courses — if they can show they know the material at a proficient level.

However, that does not mean she wants students graduating earlier.

“We want them going deeper” into their studies, she said.

Colleges do not want younger students, either, she said, when it puts 18-year-olds with 22-year-olds.

Alaska has had CBE for 20 years, and New Hampshire for 15 years, she said. New Hampshire likes it so much that the legislature made CBE systems mandatory in public schools.

In Alaska, Dop said, pupils who started with CBE in kindergarten were found to, by fifth and sixth grade, negotiate with teachers over how they can demonstrate proficiency.

“I found it fascinating,” she said.

School board member Mike Colbert, a college instructor, asked how students adjust to sitting in auditoriums taking notes. Dop said she had one student tell her that they can adapt.

West Branch Schools Superintendent Kevin Hatfield told the crowd that he and a group of teachers traveled to observe CBE. When he asked them if West Branch could prepare a CBE curriculum by the next school year, he said they were unsure.

But when he asked them “How many of you would like to see your kids doing this?” he saw all of their hands go up.

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