Competency-Based Education Goes to Washington

Competency-Based Education Goes to Washington

This LatestCounsel was written by Dan Gordon, EducationCounsel Senior Legal and Policy Advisor.

For most of the past decade, Washington, DC’s public schools—arguably more than Congress—have been at the center of the national education reform movement. Whether it’s mayoral control, teacher evaluation and retention, charter schools, universal pre-K, the Common Core State Standards, next-generation school design, or (sigh) how best to stage a magazine photo shoot, almost every important education policy issue has been playing out in schools just around the corner from the US Department of Education and Capitol Hill. With the recent launch of a citywide task force comprising government, school, and community leaders, DC is poised to dive into another key reform: competency-based education (CBE).

Perhaps surprisingly, DC is one of only a handful of SEAs that has no policy allowing LEAs to award high school credits free of the constraints of the Carnegie Unit, a proxy for 120 hours of instruction. (That said, in many states, CBE or similar credit flexibility laws are in place on paper but are not yet being implemented on the ground.) A Carnegie Unit regime inevitably leads to one-size-fits-all high schools, limiting students at both ends of the spectrum. Students who are ready to progress quickly often have to wait out the 120-hour clock—think about the computer whiz who is ready for a new challenge after a few months in the introductory computer science course. Meanwhile, students who need more support are whisked off the stage when the 120-hour bell rings and then forced to retake the entire course, regardless of how close they are to mastering the material. (There are other benefits—and risks—to CBE, which will be the subject of future posts.) A CBE approach, by contrast, allows LEAs and schools to personalize learning and take advantage of a more flexible regime to ensure students can progress as they demonstrate mastery and not just according to rigid 120-hour blocks.

While DC is uncharacteristically a little late arriving, given its track record on the issues listed above, there’s reason to believe DC can and will quickly become the life of the CBE party. The Task Force is just getting started, and it’s often hard to challenge such long-held assumptions about how schools (and especially high schools) should be organized. That said, the nation may soon have yet another reason to pay close attention to what’s happening in the “other” DC.

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