Fans of Competency Based Education have a few favorite go-to exemplars of their idea in action.
The granddaddy of all exemplars is the school system of Chugach, Alaska. Chugach actually joined in the Outcome Based Education movement of two decades ago and never looked back. But Chugach serves a small population spread over a large more-than-rural area (214 students over 22,000 square miles). And if you start to look at their record of success, it is perhaps not quite as awesome as it first appears.
So for many reasons, maybe not such a great example. Do we have anything closer to home?
Meet Sanborn Regional High School in New Hampshire and its principal, Brian Stack. Stack has spent about six years working on this, and he has written about it with a dedication that I have to respect. His school is regularly featured as an exemplar school, a model school for CBE. A couple of CBE fans have directed me toward his work, so I've been taking a look, and while I can by no means claim to have read everything he has to say about his school's work with CBE, I am prepared to react.
Good Thing: Considering Local History
One thread that runs through Stack's writing about the process of implementing CBE is just how much he considered how things had been done in the past. He appears to have really thought about how CBE could be implemented to address issues that the school already had. In other words, he seemed to have skipped the part of reform where you just drag everyone onto the new track no matter where they already are.
Bad Thing: A Not-very-typical School
The school is located in Kingston, NH, a community of just under 6,000 people. The town's population is 97.97% white, and the median income is a bit over $61K. The school also draws from Fremont and Newton , two slightly smaller towns with nearly identical demographics. The area is rural in the sense that it is neither all developed up or urbanized (Coastal New Hampshire is heavy on the marshland, which is a great inhibitor of development). I drive through the area a couple of times a year, and it most resembles what you imagine when you think of a quaint New England town (Not Near The Ocean division). Kingston is about seven miles away from Exeter (home of Philips Exeter Academy) and a little bit further from the actual ocean.
The student body is only about 750 students, and in some promotional videos for the school, I saw one black student and one Asian student. Sanborn Regional High School is not Finland, but it's certainly doesn't have the cultural or economic mix of many American schools. That means there are many educational challenges that they have neither faced nor overcome.
Good Thing: Actual Personalization
It should be noted that there is no earthly reason to assume that CBE means personalization. Schools can (and have) institute a CBE system in which every student completes exactly the same competencies and the only personalized portion of the education is the student's pace through the checklist of things to do. So I give the state of New Hampshire some credit for emphasizing personalization in the CBE context.
That is set in a fairly broad framework that leaves a great deal of room for interpreting the specifics. Sanborn lists as it values Personalization, Risk-taking, Integrity, Discovery and Empowerment (PRIDE-- get it?) and then lists as their educational goals are to effectively communicate, creatively solve problems, responsibly use information, self-manage learning, produce quality work, and contribute to their community (ECCSPRUIS... never mind). To meet these goals, students are broken down into "learning communities" that pursue these goals in a variety of ways. That would seem to set the stage for personalization.
Bad Thing: That's Not the Way the Wind Is Blowing
There are some problems with personalization if you are a reformster who hopes to make some money scaling all of this up, and don't think folks haven't noticed.
Julia Freeland Fisher works at the Clayton Christensen Institute where she "leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres through its research." She used to work for the New Schools Venture Fund, an organization that helps hedge funders get their hands on some sweet, sweet education money. She has written about the CBE movement in NH-- here's how she defines it.
...creating opportunities for students to move at a flexible, personalized pace; providing supplemental content for students who are struggling or who want to move ahead; and making assessments more frequent and formative, with a focus on demonstrating mastery in real-world examples and settings.
So now we're back to moving through a single track at different speeds, with the occasional "extra" work to remediate or enrich. We're back to all testing, all the time. This is not so impressive. And what obstacles does Fisher see standing in the way of making CBE really take off in NH?
First, local control still allows districts to interpret these additional mandates to their liking.
Second, scaling the state’s vision of personalized competency-based education will require new academic tools and processes that arm teachers and students with real-time feedback and enable students to move through content at a flexible pace
Fisher says that lots of districts are uncomfortable with their level of freedom and keep asking the state to just go ahead and set competencies for them. And here we find one of the central problems of modern CBE-- it's sold as personalization, but the goal is invariably to create a computer-driven model that manages all the data and assessment. So the goal is completely standardized personalization.
I don't know how this playing out at Sanborn-- in all Stack's writing, he has remarkably little to say about what the actual competencies actually look like, or how the process of personalization actually works. If we look at his letter to his earlier self, most of his "If I knew then" concerns are managerial and cultural (also, he uses "impact" as a verb, for which I give him one demerit).
Big Problem Area: Grading
So how do you do the grade thing if you have a whole bunch of different students doing different things at a different pace? You can try reading pieces like this Quality Performance Assessment article, but holy smokes, it is vague and useless. Stack talks a lot about how he had to implement and enforce a common grading system; he seems to feel that different teachers having their own philosophies and ideas about grading were a problem. Personally, I'm not so sure. Stack is also pretty adamant about not giving zeros and not tying grades to things like homework points, and his policy is that the summative assessments must be 90% of the final grade.
Additionally, the school focuses on reassessment, a rolling grade (no grading periods). But Stack's writing is always a bit oblique about exactly how assessment is done. For example:
The ability to be able to “dig deeper” into what a final grade represents and how it can be used to report learning not only intrigued the admissions officers, but it generated an entire discussion around what else a competency-based grading and reporting system could do for students. Indeed, this model should be the way of the future for all high schools.
Stack never talks about any massive computer-driven test and store data collection, but is that what being able to dig deeper and see more detail means? Tom Vander Ark put the school on the list of thirty to watch, and since TVA is the ultimate lets just hook everyone up to a computer and start data mining technocrat, that really doesn't speak well of Sanborn.
Sanborn uses a grading system that any casual observer will recognize as an A-to-F scale by another name. Here's the sheet that parents are directed to for answers. I'm just not sure how many answers are actually here. I mean, it explains some things, kind of, and I don't find any online record of parental uproar, so it must be working in some way. I'm just left feeling that some aspects of Sanborn's system are mysterious and unclear.
A Greater Tension
So despite some peoples' insistence that looking at Sanborn will help me understand how CBE can be awesome, it doesn't.
It does help focus my mind on one of the built in tensions that emerge between personalization, competency based education, technology-driven test and data collection, and scaling any of this into state-or-nation-wide product. All four of those things are in play here, and none of them HAVE to go together. In fact, some of them operate in direct opposition. True personalized education would begin the day that the teacher meets the child, with nothing pre-created or pre-designed. True competency based education has some serious problems built in, not the least of which is its focus on reducing all learning to a series of money tricks. Hooking students up to the computer for all standardized testing, all day is great for Data Overlords, but not for education. And the degree to which any of this can be scaled up for widespread deployment is in direct opposition to the degree to which it is truly a personalized program. Computerized one size fits all is not personalized education, but places like Sanborn and Chugach suggest that fans of these approaches are trying to pilot in places where one-size-fits-all is likely to work a bit better due to a local lack of diversity.
These different aspects of CBE stand in opposition to each other, and the value of any single program is going to rest on how it settles these "tensions."