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Competency-based learning gains traction in U.S. schools

Posted at 12:41 PM, Jan 18, 2023

Many parents were alarmed last year at the news of the lowest test scores in decades following the pandemic. Some academic experts say it's an opportunity to take a step back and consider new learning methods. One gaining traction is called competency-based learning.

New England Innovation Academy is a private boarding school outside of Boston that is following a unique approach to teaching its students. There are no grades, only assessments, to demonstrate whether students have mastered what they're learning. Tom Woelper is the founding head of the school.

"Our founders fundamentally believe that our educational system was broken," Woelper said. "It wasn't adequately preparing students for this rapidly changing world."

Woelper says they focus on design, engineering, and business while translating projects into real-world solutions.

"Our upper school students are looking to develop farm implements and to design products that will solve various challenges that farmers and gardeners actually experience," Woelper said.

There is also a large focus on creativity and integration between subjects. Seventh-grader Ava Helon says this method of learning is more engaging for her. One of her favorite classes is learning Mandarin.

"For homework, we would have to make a radio or say the weather in Mandarin, which is really cool," Helon said. "Or maybe make a video and send it to an international school in Taiwan. Last year, we wrote letters to them. So, it's more a way of learning not only the language, but also the culture and the history of it."

Tenth-grader Olive Viehland has had the opportunity to pursue her passion in engineering a spinning wheel.

"This spinning wheel is a variant called the kick spindle," Viehland said. "I've always been fascinated by historical practices and crafts."

A teacher recommended she attend New England Innovation Academy since creativity is encouraged.

"She knew that I was extremely creative and this school was structured around that," Viehland said. "Instead of suppressing a student into doing like, whatever is just the bare curriculum."

The idea behind this school is part of a growing trend in the U.S. called competency-based learning. Instead of your typical A, B, C or D, students are tracked based on their overall understanding.

"So, there's surface, immersed and deep," Helon said. "Deep means you're really fully understanding, you're putting your best self forward. Immersed is you're getting there and surface, maybe you don't really understand, or you need a teacher to help you through that."

Education nonprofit Aurora Institute has collected data on competency-based learning systems. CEO Susan Patrick says 8-10% of schools and districts across the nation are currently implementing or taking steps toward it. However, it's not new. Patrick says the first school to take it on was in the 1980s in Alaska.

"Over five years, they shifted from the 28th percentile in reading to the 71st percentile," Patrick said. "They shifted from the 26th percentile in language arts to the 72nd percentile. And in math, they shifted from the 54th percentile to the 78th percentile in math."

Although the shift from the traditional school model to competency-based learning isn't always easy, it's possible even among public schools. Westminster Public School District in Colorado made the change in 2008.

"We decided that the traditional system for many of our students who start from behind when they come to us, was not serving them well," Superintendent Pamela Swanson, who has a Ph.D. in educational leadership and organizational development, said. "We thought we could do a better job with that."

Many students in the district come from low-income households or they are second-language learners. However, Swanson says statewide testing after the pandemic shows they didn't fall behind.

"We were only in a handful of districts across the state, even given challenging demographics where we actually made gains instead of losing," Swanson said.

She says this system gives each student the opportunity to follow their passion and their motivation to learn follows.

"I've pursued so many different things at the school that I'm incredibly thankful for," Viehland said.

"I feel like I want to be like an entrepreneur and like, make my own company," Helon said.