Bush education foundations push to expand ‘competency-based’ learning

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P. K. Yonge Developmental Research School (Ebyabe)
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Former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education reform foundations are advocating for policies in Florida and nationally that would allow students to advance academically based on whether they’ve mastered content rather than on their age or grade.

With guidance from the Bush-founded Foundation for Florida’s Future and, in some cases, support from outside private grants, three school districts in Florida have already begun implementing “competency-based learning” or “mastery education" pilot programs. Now, the foundation is urging lawmakers to propose policies that would remove barriers to fully implementing the strategy in those districts and statewide.

Educators say the state’s school funding formula, the infrequency of state testing and the rigidity of students’ progression from one grade to the next under traditional public school systems are obvious obstacles lawmakers could address to promote competency-based learning.

But they expect to encounter other problems, and are hoping for an imprecise law that provides flexibility for further changes. Specifically, the foundation is advocating for a bill that would give the state education commissioner broad powers to waive certain statutory or regulatory requirements that might prevent schools from designing personalized instruction for individual students.

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“The commissioner already has statutory authority to waive some areas for activities related to innovation, so we just latched on to that authority and tried to expand it just a little,” said Shan Goff, Florida policy director for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a related but nationally focused foundation also founded by Bush. She was explaining proposed language for a bill that the foundations hope will be introduced by lawmakers soon.

Florida is in a particularly strong position to implement competency-based learning because schools here have already implemented many of the components. The state's schools have prioritized acquiring technological devices and offering online coursework, for example. There are policies that allow students to earn credit for some courses just by passing end-of-course exams or earn college credit while in high school through Advanced Placement or community college courses. Students may graduate high school early.

But educators have identified major barriers to full implementation of competency-based learning: testing requirements and state funding that’s based on attendance.

Lake County Schools won a $3.1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to implement the program, which the district launched this academic year in some grades within two elementary schools, one middle school and two high schools. Administrators hope to implement the program in all grades in those schools in four years.

Most of the grant dollars are funding professional development for teachers, said Kathy Halbig, the district’s coordinator for personalized learning.

“The big thing that we need help from the Legislature on is pacing,” Halbig said. “What that means is, if a student is really gifted in math, there should be opportunities for that student to deepen or enrich or move forward in that content area. Our goal isn’t to have second graders graduate, but if students really are gifted, we want them to be able to move as deeply into the material as they are able. We don’t want them to be held back by ‘teacher pace.’

“We would love it if we had an opportunity for students to take end-of-course testing when they actually finish,” she said. “Some students might finish in October, some students might finish in November; students progress based on mastery of standard rather than on seat time.”

Administrators at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, a special, one-school district in Gainesville that is a labaratory of the University of Florida’s education college, have experienced the same frustration.

“Right now, everything in Florida is driven by the test date,” said Lynda Hayes, the school's director. “There are [testing] windows, but those windows are set by the state. We really do not have flexibility about when kids take their tests and when we can move them on to the next course.”

In some ways, P.K. Yonge had a head start in implementing competency-based learning programs because the school had already developed classrooms in which students in different grades are mixed.

Kindergarteners and first graders are taught together in a “learning community,” as are second and third graders, and fourth and fifth graders. Teachers are then able to group students into smaller units based on their abilities and progress rather than grade.

But that’s difficult to do in higher grades, because the school’s funding depends on how many minutes a day students spend in specific classes, Hayes said.

“We have to report to the state about where students are sitting at different times of the day, and that impacts our funding,” she said.

Administrators in both Lake County and at P.K. Yonge extolled the benefits of the program, which they said required teachers and students to think differently about learning. Academic standards are the focus of instruction, they said.

“The curriculum has to be very transparent, so the student doesn’t just move forward because they’ve done the assignments that the teacher required,” Halbig said. “Instead, everything centers on the standard. The students understand the standard and understand their own abilities in working toward the standard and can articulate what they need to do in order to master the standard.”

Pinellas County Schools is also implementing a pilot program.

Meanwhile, the Foundation for Excellence in Education is supporting similar efforts in other states, such as Ohio and Idaho, where lawmakers have devoted resources to implementation.

State policymakers in those states are also hoping to learn about potential future policy changes through pilot programs that are underway. So far, educators in those states have run into similar problems as their peers in Florida.

In Idaho, the Legislature allocated $400,000 to establish 20 schools or districts as competency-based learning “incubators” and launch a statewide marketing campaign about the program.

Twenty-five schools or districts have applied to pilot the program. The ones that are chosen will use 2016-17 as a planning year and launch in 2017-18, said Kelly Brady, mastery education director at the Idaho State Department of Education. The department has asked for $1.2 million to fund the program going forward, she said.

Testing policies are a concern, Brady said.

“Say they’re a third grader and they’ve mastered fifth and sixth grade, but we’re still testing them at the third grade level — that was a bit of an issue,” she said.

She hopes the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act or ESSA, an overhaul of No Child Left Behind that allows for more flexibility in testing requirements, will boost competency-based learning.

In Ohio, policymakers have chosen five schools or districts to pilot the program; each will get $200,000 a year for the next few years.

“Ultimately, when we get to the point where we can rethink funding and we can rethink testing, that would allow for competency-based education to really take off,” said Buddy Harris, senior policy analyst at the Ohio Department of Education.

But, despite the challenges, they're motivated to start implementing the program now, he said.

“We didn’t want to wait around,” he said.