Competency-Based Education: The Black Box of Good Teaching

By Patrick Riccards

In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, Lincoln Intermediate science teacher Ashley Flatebo works with sixth-graders Makenzy York, left, and Hunter Fields in a Competency Based Education classroom in Mason City, Iowa. Instead of traditional seat-and-lecture time, students are afforded a flexible, individualized learning environment where they progress at their own pace. (AP Photo/The Globe-Gazette, Arian Schuessler)

RCEd Commentary

We already have a pretty good idea what it is that good teachers know and are able to do.

Now is the time to focus more on how to prepare them to know and do those things, before they enter the classroom, and how to stay sharp as they continue their careers.

In two new reports from Bellwether Education Partners, Chad Aldeman and Ashley LiBetti Mitchel examine the decline in the professional experience today’s classroom teachers have and suggest what states can and should do to prepare more effective teachers for today’s and tomorrow’s classrooms.

In looking at specific efforts in 11 states in “No Guarantees,” the authors recommend strategies to increase access to good teachers, including “unpacking of the black box of good teaching,” while noting, “we don’t yet know how to identify or train good teachers.”

Through decades of work, Charlotte Danielson has clearly identified the knowledge and skills that beginning teachers need to both succeed in those formative years and remain in the classroom for many years to come. This inventory – or competency-based approach – is the research-based roadmap to improving teacher education. Such competencies are all about what beginning teachers must know and be able to do to succeed in the classroom. That knowledge and ability is central to effective teaching and retention of good teachers. And demonstrating that knowledge and ability should be the key criterion for teachers’ preparation, placement, development, and advancement.

Despite the research, many of the universities looking to act on it struggled. Some were unable to move beyond the beta stage to true transformation. Others ran up against a higher education system built on the credit, and not the competency, and thus standards, data systems, and the like focused on the former. At its simplest, change is hard, and such a transformation can be very hard. Ultimately necessary, but very hard.

Since we do have good guidelines on what teachers should know and be able to do, the real question is whether the current model of seat time and Carnegie Units is the best way to prepare them to do it. Yes, as “Peering Around the Corner,” notes, we are currently focused too much on inputs, believing that GPA or course numbers are the ultimate measure of an effective teacher. But if we just shift from the inputs of an outdated model to looking at the outcomes of the same model built on process over outcome, we merely change the problem rather than address it.

There is nothing magical about 36 credit hours of graduate education that ensures one will be an effective teacher. Instead, it is about understanding content and pedagogy, as well as being able to put that understanding to use in a classroom of your own.

That means that teacher preparation must begin to shift from a “time served” model to competency-based one. It means more time spent demonstrating skills in a K-12 classroom than sitting in a lecture hall. It means recognizing that the prospective teacher takes priority over the process, appreciating what an educator is bringing to the process and then building personalized approaches to complete preparation. And it means continually acquiring competencies well after the initial licensure is completed.

Yes, some are resistant to the idea of competency-based education. It is too often misconstrued as a checklist approach: anyone who is wearing a blue shirt on Tuesday meets competency 183. Such application is CBE at its very worst, and doesn’t reflect what it can and should look like in teacher education. Imagine it at its best, as part of a 21st Century teacher preparation program. Ideally, CBE for teachers does these things:

- Establishes a set of outcomes one  must attain in order to graduate, rooted in what excellent beginning teachers must know and be able to do;

- Constructs meaningful assessment tools designed to determine candidate competencies at the outset, to gauge candidate progress, and to shape each candidate’s course of study; and

- Provides a problem-based, individualized, adaptive curriculum tied to these competencies.

A competency-based approach to teacher education can achieve many of the goals sought by those looking to strengthen the prospective teacher pipeline, improve teacher education in general, and improve our collective ability to retain successful teachers.

We need to do more than just peer around the corner when it comes to teacher education. We need to take a good, hard look at where teacher education can and should go in the 21st Century. We need to look at how teacher education can serve as a model for transforming higher education in general. And we need to do everything we can to ensure all teachers are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in the classroom.

Patrick Riccards is the chief communications and strategy officer for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

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