CLIVE, Iowa — A small group met in a conference room in an otherwise unremarkable suburban office park this month to plot how to blow up Iowa’s 180-year-old public education system.
The group included state schools chief Jason Glass and a dozen other education folks from across the state, all of them adherents — to varying degrees — of what’s called competency-based education.
It’s a clumsy term that many in education circles refer to as “CBE” or “CBL” for competency-based learning, which essentially means pushing students to learn at their own pace.
That means not all 8-year-olds in the third grade are working on the same math sheets at the same time, said consultant and former Grant Wood Area Education Agency administrator Trace Pickering. Some could be applying more sophisticated mathematical concepts to building models, while others get extra one-on-one help from teachers.
Competency-based theories have been practiced for decades in Montessori schools across the country and have more recently been incorporated into district and, even, statewide curriculums. New Hampshire’s 21st High Schools plan of 2004 is one of the largest attempts to date.
In Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad’s education reform proposal called for more study of the competency-based education theory, which, so far, has support from both Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature.
That’s why Glass was meeting with educators at the School Administrators of Iowa building a couple weeks ago. They’re part of a group that’s supposed to turn in a report to the General Assembly in November on how competency-based education could work in Iowa.
Still, despite the bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, competency-based education likely faces a tough road in Iowa. There are questions of teacher training, appropriate funding from the state and curriculum creation left to be answered.
Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, a retired teacher and ranking member of the House Education Committee, thinks the biggest roadblock could be tradition.
“We all went to school, we all remember what school is like,” she said. “This is a big change from what we’re used to — it’s a paradigm shift — and it’s very hard for people to change.”
The Muscatine experiment
Andrea Stewart, who oversees accelerated programs in the Muscatine Community School District, knows how hard the switch can be.
Muscatine started a competency-based education pilot a year ago. The idea was to train a set number of teachers each year to understand how to instruct, evaluate and track students in a competency-based system.
Ten of the original 20 completed the training. There are 15 teachers now working through the training.
“It can be difficult to figure out how you translate what we’re doing to your traditional grade book,” Stewart said. “This is not a typical setting.”
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The teachers are spread throughout the K-12 system. Stewart estimates fewer than 1,000 of the district’s 5,200 students have a class with a competency-based education teacher.
These classes are based on concepts students must master in order to go move on to the next set of concepts. The idea of grade levels and even traditional grades don’t apply.
“No one is allowed to fail,” Stewart said.
Instead, if a student can’t prove that he or she has mastered a concept, a teacher will work with the pupil until he or she does.
Mastery isn’t shown through only pencil and paper testing, either. Maybe a student is required to raise plants in a greenhouse for their job, for example. Showing the biology teacher that he or she can do that may be enough proof that the student understands the concepts behind photosynthesis. A student who builds a computer at home as a hobby could show mastery for a technical concept.
Pickering said that makes school more applicable to how the real world works.
“In your job, you’re measured by how you apply the knowledge you have, not that you have it,” he said. “A good journalist is measured on how well they write the story, not that they’ve memorized the parts of a good story.”
The goal, Stewart said, is that no student ends up with a D or an F at the end of the term. That’s in a school district where between 34 percent and 40 percent of 9th- through 12th-graders earn at least one of those letter grades each semester.
Stewart hopes competency-based education continues to grow in Muscatine. She also would like to see it grow in the state.
She’s part of the group that met recently in Clive to work on the task force report due in November. So is Sandra Dop, an administrator with the Iowa Department of Education.
Dop said competency-based education holds a lot of promise, but she acknowledges that the biggest challenge right now is getting people used to the idea.
Indeed, the last 45 minutes of the meeting in Clive was spent on how best to get materials — along the lines of Competency-Based Education 101 — out to teachers, school officials and parents if and when the roll-out happens.
The task force issued a preliminary report in January that recommended pilot programs in 10 school districts.
“Iowa is a local-control state, so I don’t think that we’d ever mandate this,” Dop said. “But we could lay out a program that school districts could use.”
And right now — before any training, curriculum or funding requests have been made — key legislators are on board.
“It’s a whole new way of looking at (education),” said Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, a former school board member and chairman of the House Education Committee. “I’d like to see something we can use statewide, but I want to reserve judgment until we get their full report.”