In recent years there has been a movement in K-12 education in the U.S. toward what is known, variously, as “performance-based learning,” “competency-based learning” and “proficiency-based learning.” What these three terms all describe is an educational approach that values outcomes rather than inputs.
If you work in K-12 education you have undoubtedly heard the term “factory model.” This refers to the fact that American schools use essentially the same approach to instruction and learning that they did during the Industrial Revolution. Students are assigned to grades based on their ages rather than what they know. They spend most of their time in classrooms with some thirty same-aged peers while one teacher transmits his or her knowledge to them. Students advance through the system by accumulating credits, or Carnegie units, which they earn for completing required courses. All students without some sort of disability are expected to learn at the same pace.
Public K-12 education is primarily the responsibility of states and local school districts. Most states maintain policies mandating that students complete a certain number of hours to receive credit for courses. These rules are known as “seat-time” policies.
Seat-time and Carnegie units are inputs. They prescribe what students must do, not what they learn. Of course, most states have academic standards that prescribe what students should learn at each grade level, along with the relevant learning objectives. But most state standards also prescribe a sequence of learning based on age. Seat-time rules and Carnegie units reinforce a rigid approach to learning that does not allow for differences in student abilities and interests. This results in many students who do not “fit” the system either being passed along while falling further and further behind, or simply dropping out.
An educational approach tailored to individual students’ needs, one that does not force students to proceed in the same way and at the same pace, would also help reduce inequality and facilitate the development of more engaged citizens. Many students learn better through hands-on activities either in school or in the community. Some might prefer to spend their time in a traditional classroom. Others might do better with online instruction. Most would probably benefit from all three.
The increased availability of high-quality educational technology means that a more individual approach to education is now possible. Students do not need to sit in a classroom if they are working on a computer. If they don’t need additional help on a topic or concept they can proceed at their own pace, and they can do the work at home. This would allow a more flexible schedule for jobs and community-based learning.
Community-based learning connects young people to adult mentors and role models. This access to influential adults is especially important for disadvantaged youth because it can help them develop communication skills and local knowledge that more advantaged youth gain through their parents’ and family friends’ social and professional networks.
In a performance-based system, students would identify learning objectives and develop an educational plan in consultation with teachers and parents. Once students have clear goals, which they help identify, much of the responsibility for learning would be transferred from teachers to students, especially older students. Youth voice is, of course, a fundamental part of civic development. As students make educational choices they learn how to plan and prioritize—also important civic skills not emphasized in the current system.
Some schools and states are already moving in this direction. The Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, with schools in Alaska, California, Colorado and Maine, uses standards-based units rather than grade levels. At Redmond Proficiency Academy in Redmond, Oregon, students choose when to take their classes. Students know the state standards, and they move toward those standards at their own pace (although they still move through traditional grade levels). A sister-school slated to open next year in nearby Salem will utilize local professionals and business owners to teach some courses.
In fact, Oregon is a leader in proficiency-based learning, having allowed districts to award credit tied to proficiency since 2003. In 2009 the rule was expanded to require student work to be tied to proficiency or mastery of identified state standards.[i] A few other states have moved toward a proficiency model too. In 2005, New Hampshire actually eliminated the Carnegie unit. The Florida Virtual School offers 115 online courses, which students can complete at their own pace.
All of this is obviously quite different from the reforms being supported by many business leaders and the Obama administration, which focus on governance and accountability. But converting a traditional school to a charter school or replacing all the teachers—while continuing to use an instructional model that does not allow for differences in student learning—will not solve the dropout problem or eliminate the achievement gap.
Although my background is in K-12 education, in recent years I became more interested in community-based strategies to support youth civic engagement because I believed the increase in test-based accountability demands on schools created an environment in which meaningful citizenship education was increasingly difficult. But if education moves toward an anytime, anywhere model that gives students more flexibility and pushes them to take responsibility for their own learning, students will be better able to take advantage of community-based learning opportunities, including programs designed to engage them in community leadership and decision-making. Teachers, students, community-based youth development organizations, local governments and nonprofits can work together to identify ways to help young people acquire civic and career competencies, such as through increased use of internships and apprenticeships in local government or with youth-serving organizations.
Public education has been remarkably resistant to change in the U.S., so a move to performance-based learning will not happen overnight. But it is being supported by important national organizations such as the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers through what the CCSSO calls “Next Generation Learning.” Those of us who support youth civic engagement should also support performance-based education because it provides an opening for us to reassert the importance of public education in strengthening communities and our democracy. Let’s not waste this moment.