Everyone’s Happy in Happy-Land, Dept.

Chicago Tribune carries this story about a controversial approach to education being tried at various high schools in Illinois :

They’re abandoning most aspects of traditional classroom instruction and reshaping the way kids learn.

The approach, called competency-based learning, puts the onus on students to study and master skills at their own pace, making their own choices along the way and turning to peers and online searches for answers before they lean on teachers for help. Students may show proficiency on a topic not simply through traditional testing but by using projects, presentations or even activities outside school.

Competency-based; another “base” in the long line of bases; “inquiry-based”, “research-based”, “evidence-based”, “brain-based”. The list goes on.

The pilots are in various stages of planning and implementation, but all focus on instruction changes in high schools, likely a tough sell for parents who learned the traditional way: Teachers lecturing to a group; quizzes, tests and homework; letter grades and GPAs.

Right; everyone knows that doesn’t work. The educationists have been saying it for years, and the press eats it up and apparently many people believe it.

In contrast, students in competency-based programs take the time they need to master skills and make their choices in their academic journey.

Right, this sounds like a winner, especially if they’re trying to get into college and they need certain courses completed and mastered. But “take your time”, we’ll just make believe there’s no time element anymore and everyone’s happy in happy-land.

At Ridgewood High School, math teacher Tristan Kumor started off geometry class on a recent day by asking his students, “How do you want to learn today?”

His 9th and 10th graders sat in groups, with one student using Popsicle sticks to build a bridge. The lesson related to triangles. Kumor traversed the room guiding students individually on their progress, which is part of the way competency-based education plays out.

Yeah, right, that’s the ticket. But I think this has been tried before. PBL or something like that. Or is there some twist to this approach that I’m just not getting?

Computer testing and other work show how kids are progressing, and teachers provide individual feedback to students, acting as facilitators or coaches who monitor student growth and ensure kids are self-directed enough to assist and even teach their peers. The idea is that if a student can teach a peer, it’s clear they know the material.

At Proviso East, signs in classrooms direct students to do several things before going to the teacher: They need to reread the question, check their notes, ask other students for help and search Google for information. If their question is not resolved after all that, they may go to the teacher.

Yes, it all sounds happy and fruitful. Teachers as facilitators or coaches. Students teaching other students.  A “three-before-me” approach; God forbid they should ask the teacher anything. We don’t want teachers teaching  handing it to the student, now do we?

There’s no such thing as an F in the competency-based learning world, because failing is considered an attempt at learning that helps lead to mastery.

Right, the Jo Boaler approach which holds that mistakes grow your brain. And if mistakes are that powerful, then failing is even better!

Depending on the school, students might not receive letter grades on report cards. Some Illinois schools already use a numerical approach, such as 1 to 4, rather than letter grades to show academic progress.

And let me guess; no one gets a 4. At least that’s how it’s played out in other schools that have tried similar things.

Educators say the grades and transcripts have been a source of concern, with high schools reluctant to change because that data is used in college admissions.

Well yeah, there’s that, but let’s not let that stop such a promising program.

And even the strongest supporters of competency-based learning acknowledge the challenges ahead as educators, parents and kids process how the program will work.

Right, but let’s just keep doing it until the next shiny new thing comes along and this approach will be tossed on the dust bin with the usual lamentations: “Well we tried competency based learning but that didn’t work because –list of reasons follows — but this approach fixes those things.”  Just as long as it’s not traditional ed. Because God knows, that certainly hasn’t proved out, now has it?


5 thoughts on “Everyone’s Happy in Happy-Land, Dept.

  1. I agree with Teresa’s comments. Is it because they’re children that nobody cares? What other profession would allow this to happen? This needs to stop.


  2. “[“I’m scared,” Hardy admitted.
    He said the program is not a perfect solution and not every student will graduate prepared for college, work and life after competency-based learning.
    Even so, there’s no turning back.
    “We had a school on the brink of failure,” he said.]”

    Perhaps not prepared for “… work or life after competency-based learning”?

    So let’s just lower expectations and make it seem official. Never mind what the requirements are for college, vocational school, work, or even life.

    It appears to be an opt-in pilot program, and I see that Proviso West still offers the traditional AP Calculus track. Proponents (including the math fuzzies) still like to claim the higher ground of understanding and results even when they lower breadth, depth, and expectations. You end up with a chasm that you can’t Pre-AP away and you can’t claim a program of self-competency. Lower expectations are less, not more, especially if you only create fake catch-up Pre-AP chasm bridges or dump kids off to the community college for failure and self-blame.

    That’s the fundamental fuzzies flaw – lower expectations are always less, not more. Engagement plus student-driven PBL is not even a proper vocational education let alone a path to STEM.


  3. Yay kids progress at their own pace. But what if their pace is zero? Kids teach other kids. So just knowing the material makes one a teacher? Why do we still need colleges of ed then? I’m not even advocating for the retention of ed colleges, but the original article posits an incredibly simplistic viewpoint. What happens to the pace of those advanced kids who grasped the material early on and are now expected to teach others? Seems like their pace also reverts to zero. No flaws in this proposal.


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