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Fixing the Schools
Stuff Learned Trumps Time Served

Anyone who has spent time in a high school classroom will know that not everyone learns at the same speed. Some kids are bored by the material of their grade level, while others struggle to keep up. Yet despite these obvious discrepancies, most schools insist that all students of the same grade level learn exactly the same things at exactly the same time. Only in relatively rare circumstances are children allowed to skip or repeat grades.

Slowly but surely, some schools are looking to change this. The WSJ explores the rise of “competency-based learning,” which organizes students based on skill rather than age. Students advance to new material when they have demonstrated mastery of their current work, and when they’re allowed to learn at their own pace, test scores go up. The WSJ profiles one school district, in Lindsay, California, that has reaped the benefits of the new approach:

The district has seen its pass rates on state exams rise since competency-based teaching began in 2009. In reading, 34% of students passed the exams last year, up from 25% in 2009. Pass rates for math rose to 32% from 28%, while those for science jumped to 41% from 27%.

The district still scores below California averages on all the exams, but is improving faster than the statewide average on most of them. Lindsay’s score in the state Academic Performance Index, based on tests, jumped to 691 last year from 644 in 2009. The 47-point gain compares with an average 35-point rise statewide.

Many critics, however, worry that competency-based learning could be used as a pretext to lower standards for students who are less gifted or who receive less support at home. Others note that the burden of teaching various lesson plans for students at different points in the curriculum could make life difficult for teachers. These are real concerns, and supporters need to make sure that standards are in place so that hard-to-teach students don’t lag behind. But overall, we like the experimention with any approach that rewards students for what they’ve learned rather than the amount of time they’ve served in the classroom. There’s nothing natural or eternal about “grades,” and moving students in lockstep based on age is a waste of time and talent.

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  • Andrew Allison

    Lindsay, pop. 12,000, one-third of which is Hispanic, with a median age 28 (half the CA median) has a single High School. It would be very interesting to know the impact of these demographics on the acceptance by teachers of competency-based learning, and the results, specifically how they distributed between Caucasian and Hispanic students.

    • rheddles

      These are the demographics of Lindsay HS

      Student Demographics for Lindsay Senior High School

      Asian 29 (3%)
      Black 3 (0.29%)
      Hispanic 932 (88.59%)
      Multiple Race 2 (0.19%)
      Pacific Islander 2 (0.19%)
      White 84 (7.98%)
      Female 557 (53%)
      Male 495 (47%)

      GOP take note. Hispanics know they are ill served by Union Label education and that education is the key to their children’s success. They want alternatives.

      • Andrew Allison

        I think you may be onto something! But the number of teachers in the District probably had a lot to do with the acceptance of the changes. Great news anyway.

  • Anthony

    “Stuff learned trumps time served.” Well that depends. There is no getting around educational reality (K-12) that content is skill and skill content; despite model (competency based, academic grades, you name it) the academic skill remains constrained by working memory so that fundamentally models facilitate domain knowledge.

    • Andrew Allison

      Huh? Could you, for the benefit of we dummies, explain what you mean.

      • Corlyss

        Thanks. I had the same thought.

  • Boritz

    This article reminds me of a story my dentist told me that got my full attention.
    When he went to dental school in the 80s there was a hefty dental lab component in the curriculum. The students would spend 8 or 9 hours making a crown or a bridge, and if it didn’t fit when applied to the patient they would have to start from scratch and spend another 8 or 9 hours to do it a second time. Practicing dentists don’t do their own lab work but instead send the work off to dental labs, but he assumed what he was learning in school was state of the art. Not so. After he graduated and hung out his shingle here came a bunch of salesmen who showed him products that accomplished the same thing more easily in a small fraction of the time. He was astounded. Why did he have to learn these products existed from salesmen? He called one of his professors to ask what gives? The answer he got from the professor was basically this: When I went to dental school in the 1950s we had to do this crap. So anyone who passes through these doors and receives a diploma is going to go through the same rite of passage. Maybe this won’t happen at the high school level and if you can fulfill the requirements in 2 1/2 years you won’t have to stay for 4 just because.

    • Andrew Allison

      Exactly! This is the Guild problem which WRM has addressed in the past, and which is responsible, among other things, not just for antediluvian dentistry but the sorry state healthcare in general.

    • f1b0nacc1

      I also imagine (I know NOTHING about dentistry, but a reasonable amount about academe) that there were a few instructors who had based their career upon teaching this technique, and thus had no real interest in ‘moving with the times’, so didn’t see any need to change what they were teaching despite the fact that it was utterly obsolete and useless.
      This is one (of several) reasons why advanced Computer Science degrees are often less valuable than they might seem…

  • Corlyss

    “Many critics, however, worry that competency-based learning could be used as a pretext to lower standards for students who are less gifted or who receive less support at home.”

    Holy cow! That should have been a goal all along. Instead, the education system has shackled the smarter students with a burden of acting as inspiration and peer tutors for the dross, without any recognizable benefits to either group or society. The practice should have been discredited institutionally a century ago and eliminated.

    • free_agent

      They say, “competency-based learning could be used as a pretext to lower standards
      for students who are less gifted or who receive less support at home”.

      It’s hard to imagine a system that lowers standards for disadvantaged students than “You advance to the next grade regardless of what you have learned this year.”

  • free_agent

    I’m not seeing the novelty here. Back when public education in the US was established, one advanced from one “grade” to the next by proving competency in the material of the current grade. In the 1900s, it became popular to have “social promotion”, you got advanced from one grade to the next by the passage of time, more or less without regard to what you had learned (unless you had done very, very badly). Now, we’re calling it “competency-based learning”, but it sounds like the old system, you don’t advance from one grade to the next until you learn the material.

    As for, “the burden of teaching various lesson plans for students at different points in the curriculum”, I don’t see it — the third-grade teacher has a room full of third graders and teaches the third-grade material, etc. Just like it was when I was a kid, other than that not all the third-graders are the same age.

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