Competency Education and the Equity Agenda

Equity and social justice are central to my teaching philosophy and have been since my early experiences as a teacher in a low-income school in Ottawa. I had, perhaps naively, believed that I could change the world through teaching, but instead, I was left with lingering doubts about the my school’s ability to address wider social inequalities because the existing system had failed to support the needs and aspirations of all students. This philosophical commitment continues to inform my professional philosophy as a teacher, curriculum developer, and researcher. My PhD dissertation explores how equity policies are enacted in secondary schools. During my data collection interviews, I’ve heard the same doubts and criticisms, often expressed in terms of burn-out and rage, in interviews with teachers, vice-principals, and principals.

At times, these research pursuits seem unrelated to the hat I wear as a curriculum developer. And yet, they have also made me more aware of one of the most underrated benefits of competency-based education: its ability to advance the equity agenda. Equity is one of the central goals of competency-based education. Such approaches enable students to demonstrate mastery of all academic standards rather than progressing on to subsequent grades but with gaps in their understanding. This process ensures that all students possess the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in college or in their careers. Inevitably, some students will advance more quickly than others do.  Robust, well-designed competency-based systems provide the support that struggling students need, ideally leaving no learners behind. This is perhaps the biggest challenge for early adopters of competency education.

Hekademia’s model for online competency education courses (the ACe model described in a previous blog post Adaptive Competency eLearning: Self-Paced Learning at its Best) and the four elements that guide course design discussed here illustrate the practical manifestations and the philosophical commitment to ensuring that all students experience academic success.

In terms of curriculum, academic rigor need not necessarily involve bell-curves and student-to-student comparisons. Hekademia courses begin with national and state standards, distilling meaningful learning objectives that are communicated to students in accessible language, and not through curricular jargon. Hekademia designers augment core instruction with remediation and enrichment lessons to ensure that students are appropriately challenged without feeling overwhelmed.

With respect to instruction, we realize that student engagement is central to academic success and a life-long love of learning. A rich combination of interactive activities, videos, simulations, images and clear instruction provides all students with an engaging learning experience. While all students are held to the same high academic standards, instruction is personalized and progress is individualized within the online environment.

Finally, assessment must become a more positive experience for students. Rather than assessments being high-stakes or anxiety inducing, with our evaluation protocols, students are provided with many opportunities to practice important skills and to receive feedback from teachers on the learners’ strengths and weaknesses by offering opportunities for improvement.  Only when students have demonstrated mastery of learning objectives should standardized or high-stakes tests be administered. This approach affords students a chance to demonstrate learning rather than being penalized for gaps in understanding.

We know that competency education has the potential to improve student achievement. For me, competency education also has the power to help close the persistent achievement gap. If schools are expected to level the social and academic playing field, curriculum and pedagogy that inspire and motivate in students, preparing them for life after graduation, whether in college or careers, is an important first step.

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