Insights from the K12 CBE Experience for Higher Education

Light bulb inside thought bubble.I had the opportunity to join a discussion regarding efforts in higher education to create meaningful credentials, establish competencies as currency and streamline the intersection of education-workforce development-employer. As I listened to the conversation I started thinking about ways that K-12 can inform the efforts in higher education. Or the broader question: What are the lessons learned and opportunities that could advance a stronger human development system (the term human capital makes me uncomfortable) that would overcome historical patterns of inequity? As always, this is initial thinking.

Aligning Higher Education with Research on Learning and Development: I am finding that it is tremendously helpful to promote the idea that everything we do in K-12 should be aligned with the research on learning. Instead of emphasizing specific practices – that may or may not be implemented effectively – the educators become responsible for understanding the why and how of implementation by testing it against the research on learning. Although it is anecdotal, those districts and schools that create a set of pedagogical principles seem to be able to implement more quickly and with fewer quality problems. It is also valuable in shifting away from a curriculum-oriented model to a more student-centered one.

When I visited University of Maine Presque Isle, I heard the same types of remarks from a science teacher. The competency-based approach helped to clarify the goals and shift the dynamics of the classroom. However, the most powerful part was aligning with the research on learning so that students were engaged and putting forth the learning effort in projects.

Generating Demand: Although it might be a bit too early, research and stories of experiences of students who went to competency-based high schools in higher education might help to build demand for change in higher education. In higher education, cost is often given as one of the primary reasons for competency-based education. However, if you listen to these students from mastery-based high schools critique their education in higher education, I wonder if emphasizing the quality of higher education might open new doors. We should be challenging traditional and highly ineffective methods of teaching. What are students and their parents paying for? Why pay for a method of teaching that could be as easily be provided through a video?

Opt-In vs Mandatory Policies: The experience of proficiency-based learning in Maine has taught us a lot. We’ve learned a lot about the potential and the risks of mandatory policies from it and are all quite humbled. Maine was bold in establishing a proficiency-based diploma, and for a number of years we saw districts embracing the idea of competency-based education as a way to lead to a more meaningful diploma. In the early years, the Department of Education in Maine was an active partner, providing support in terms of thinking about readiness for implementation, offering technical assistance, and helping to network across the state.

With different state leadership, things changed. Districts were on their own. Some independently formed networks and consortiums to build their knowledge about effective proficiency-based learning. Others folded their arms and resisted the call to improve. They implemented a minimal number of new practices while saying they were doing proficiency-based learning. Of course students and parents reacted and led a demand to return to traditional education. The state legislature has backed off, and now districts can decide either to remain traditional or become proficiency-based. It’s becoming a natural experiment to compare the different models.

Although there haven’t been the deep reflective conversations that were needed for other states to learn from the Maine experience, there are some obvious lessons learned. First, it is very important to establish several strong proof points before moving toward mandatory policies that require competency-based approaches. Second, pay attention to quality early on and make sure there are supports available. It’s also important to have a mechanism to highlight questionable or ineffective practice. Be prepared for those districts that don’t want to change to undermine the effort.

Third, invest in community engagement/organizing strategies early. Competency-based education challenges core cultural values and long-standing traditions and habits in the education sector. Districts should always be prepared for opposition.

It can also easily be perceived as a threat to some given the conditions regarding race and class we are all operating within. The idea that if some groups benefit it means it is taking away from others – in other words, that everything results in winners or losers – needs to be challenged. A focus on personalized learning, students discovering their potential, and being recognized for a broad set of knowledge and skills are important.

Principles or Thresholds as Policy Drivers: In K-12 policy efforts have primarily been on creating innovation space at the state level through reducing impact of Carnegie credits or investing in pilots. There has been some movement in terms of opening up opportunities to create stronger systems of assessments. However, there has been little advancement in review of current policies and how they reinforce traditional systems and how they might be revised. Higher education has a different situation. Federal government policy plays a powerful role. At the state level, there have been a number of discrete policy changes but it’s hard to cross-walk across states.

Perhaps using principles and threshold concepts might be helpful in creating a more cohesive approach to policy. iNACOL and KnowledgeWorks have been laying the groundwork of a new approach to policy. They have been doing so by introducing principles or threshold concepts that can drive policy discussions. What if we were able to create a common set of principles or threshold concepts to align both K-12 and higher education? What might those be?

Creating Collaborative Cross-Sector Space: It is probably time to start laying the groundwork between the world of those seeking to create competency-based systems in K-12 and those in higher education. There are significant differences in how the two sectors think about competency-based education that make this awkward. Higher education is much more focused on the use of online and occupationally-oriented programs. However, there are also many areas of common ground, including the overall elements of competency-based education and the shared purpose of creating valuable credentials. One of the areas that would be a strong starting point is to explore the concept of competencies as currency.

I also believe that with the right mix of people, there might be ways to shape new perspectives and opportunities regarding senior transition, admissions, and entry into college. The Mastery Transcript Consortium, Great Schools Partnership, and Getting Smart would all be helpful organizations to get this going.


Other thoughts? There are also a number of lessons learned and ways that higher education could be helpful to the K-12 efforts. The number one way is to partner with us to rethink the college admissions process. The heavy reliance on the GPA that might make things easier for college admissions staff makes things much harder for districts to transform. And I think it can be argued that it is harming students overall.

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