Bob Sornson: Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency Based Learning to Transform Our Schools

Jan 5, 2016 by

An Interview with Bob Sornson: Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency Based Learning to Transform Our Schools (Routledge, 2016).

Michael Shaughnessy –

1) Bob, your new book is entitled Over Tested and Under Prepared: Using Competency Based Learning to Transform Our Schools. How did this come about?

This book is my long overdue effort to help people understand why four decades of “school reform” initiatives have been so completely ineffectual. As a nation, we’ve perseverated on trying to tweak an instructional system that was never designed to help every student become a good learner. We’ve added incredible stress to educators and to students, with very little to show for it.

Rather than trying to blame students, parents, teachers or administrators, this book shows that poor results are largely a function of the basic design of our curriculum-driven one-size-fits-all education system. This book explains how we got the system we have, how we adapted it during the industrial age and the age of school reform, and why it was never designed to help large numbers of students become successful learners. Then it describes a systems change to a competency based learning model that could help vastly more people become capable learners for life.

2) What do you mean by a systems change?

Our existing educational system is largely built around standardized delivery of curriculum. We devise long lists of content to cover (often way too much for the time allowed), then choose programs or materials to use for our instruction, and then race through content using a one-size-fits all teaching approach with rigid pacing guides or scripted instructional programs.

Coverage is the prime directive. It does not matter whether the student is frustrated or bored, comes from a privileged background or poverty, has rich learning opportunities at home or lives in chronic stress and deprivation. All students get the same instruction at the same pace. Then a test is given, and then the teacher moves along to the next unit or lesson.

For more than a hundred and fifty years we’ve used that same basic systems design. In the agrarian age, or even in the industrial age, we did not need large numbers of well-educated readers and mathematicians. But today a child is incredibly handicapped in the pursuit of the American dream of a good job and a good life if he becomes a frustrated and disengaged learner.

Our existing system was designed to expose students to knowledge by grade level, and use tests to sort out which kids should stay in school and continue to learn. In today’s world that system is inefficient at maximizing learning for advantaged children, and utterly cruel to vulnerable kids who are less likely to keep up with the pacing guide.

3) How is competency based learning different than the curriculum-driven system we are presently using?

Competency based learning starts with the identification of essential learning outcomes, the knowledge and skills that a student needs to learn to absolute proficiency to be able to move forward to higher levels of learning. Then we assess student learning skills and readiness so that instruction can be designed and delivered at the student’s readiness level. Teachers monitor progress and continually adjust instruction for essential outcomes, giving students all the time and support needed to achieve competency for any skill that is essential.

Some people call this personalized learning. For essential learning outcomes, students are given all the time and support needed to develop deep understanding and the ability to really use every essential skill. Students who develop competency quickly get to move on to higher levels of skill and challenge. Students who need more support are given the time and help needed, so they have a real chance to proceed to higher levels of learning as soon as they are ready.

4) Does everything need to be learned to competency, or can some learning just be for exploration and enrichment?

You’ve hit on a crucial question. If you want to understand higher level math, a sequence of foundational math skills must already be deeply learned and solidly in place. To be an electrician or pilot there is a sequence of skills that have to be fully learned, and you must have the ability to apply these skills in a variety of circumstances. In the modern world we need real skills to be qualified for the many technical and science-based jobs that offer great wages and opportunities.

In a competency based learning system there is a clear identification of which skills are “crucial”, and well-developed pathways to higher level skills. But in addition to these crucial skills, there are many areas of learning which serve to bring joy, excitement, exploration or enrichment to the learner. If I took a pottery course, it would be for exploration and enrichment, because I am unlikely to want to become a professional potter.

In my vision of a competency based learning program, essential skill sequences are carefully monitored and personalized to help each learner achieve competency, at any pace necessary. And at the same time there is plenty of room to create rich and interesting learning opportunities, some of which are based on the pure joy of learning.

5) How might a competency based learning system improve outcomes for at-risk students?

In a system that uses one-size-fits-all instruction vulnerable children are especially likely to struggle. Poor kids, or kids with any handicap or delay in development, are getting crushed by our present system of education.

According to the NAEP (2013) among 12th grade students only 26 percent of all students score at or above proficient levels in math, and 38 percent are proficient or better in reading. Among African American twelfth grade students tested, 7 percent are proficient or better in math and 16 percent are proficient or better in reading. Those results represent a systems issue, not a student issue.

When a system like ours defines grade level content, and then gives teachers a clear expectation that they should cover this curriculum at the same pace for all students, that system is setting a large number of kids up for failure. Because most educators just assume that teaching and learning in school is supposed to be this way, they find ways to rationalize poor results. “I covered it. They just didn’t learn it,” is a typical explanation, and that approach is damaging many at-risk students.

6) Would a competency based learning system also benefit gifted students?

Imagine a system with clearly defined pathways to higher level skills and the ability to let students move forward to the next challenge as soon as they are ready. In our existing system, some gifted learners spend a lot of time being bored. But of even more consequence, some gifted learners get into the habit of expecting learning to be easy. Competency based learning allows the option to integrate new learning into existing patterns of learning, design projects and activities to deepen learning or application of skills, or to move forward to another level of learning challenge.

Competency based learning gives students who need more time the option to learn at their own pace, and offers students who are ready to move forward the opportunity to stay engaged and challenged by the joy of learning.

7) Who are the leaders in the development of competency based learning models? 

The CBL systems model is gaining traction all around the world. High-quality options for digital and blended learning help to drive this movement, but competency based learning is much more than digital learning.

There was once a time when a college degree easily led to a good paying job. Today, the efficacy of many college degrees is in question, as many college degrees fail to align with the requirements of high-skill high-pay positions. Students with degrees may not have the competent skills that lead to job success. As a result, higher education is quickly recognizing the importance of offering personalized learning which leads to valued skills and knowledge.

Western Governor’s University was founded in 1996 to use competencies rather than seat time as the measure of its outcomes, and to take advantage of distance learning opportunities. It has grown to more than 50,000 students in all fifty states. Many other universities have implemented competency based learning programs, including traditional schools like the University of Wisconsin and Penn State.

At the University of Michigan, a competency based master’s degree program prepares practicing professionals in medicine, nursing, dentistry, pharmacy, public health, social work and other health professions to become health profession educators. Students choose from among 21 competencies which are tied to various health professions. Each enrolling student’s experience and previous learning is reviewed by a competency assessment panel, and then assigned credit for existing competencies.   Students are assigned a mentor, and an individualize program is designed to meet the needs of each student.

The pace of the program is flexible. For the degree, students must provide documentation and evidence of competency, which could be a paper, video presentation, grant application, portfolio or some combination of multiple pieces of evidence, and pass a final summative assessment based on their learning portfolio. The degree is based on the achievement of competency in the crucial skills for your individual program.

Nations around the world are recognizing the importance of competency. The European Union has identified key competencies in its European Framework of Key Competences for Lifelong Learning (2007). British Columbia and Alberta have devised competency frameworks for personalized learning. Australia has well-established competency framework for vocational education.

New Hampshire was the first state to replace Carnegie Unit credit requirements for courses and seat-time with a competency framework for high school graduation. The Lumina Foundation, CompetencyWorks, the Christensen Institute, International Association for K-12 Online Learning, KnowledgeWorks, Competency-Based Education Network, Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, the Early Learning Foundation, and many other organizations are driving the change.

The limitations of a time bound learning system are starting to be widely recognized, and the need for better, faster, and more flexible pathways to meaningful skills will continue to push us toward competency based learning.

8) Wouldn’t competency based learning require a lot of teacher re-training?

For the last few decades, we’ve placed incredible pressure on teachers to cover more and test more. Some teachers view “teaching” as following the script that is prescribed to make sure you cover the content. But every good teacher I know is dissatisfied with that model, and wants to offer individual students what they need at a level that allows them to succeed.

Yes, we are going to have to train teachers differently. That can start with identifying the skills we want teachers to have, whether as entry-level staff, tenured staff, or teacher leaders. Then we could apply a competency model to assess present skill and knowledge levels and personalize training to help teachers develop knowledge and skills that really add up to success as an educator.

9) Do you think the American public is still interested in hearing about school reform, or has attention shifted away from this concern?

After more than three decades of “school reform”, the disappointing implementation and results of No Child Left Behind, and the thinly disguised federalization of schools that was Race to the Top, the American public is disheartened. In a recent Gallup poll, education did not even show up among the top eight issues Americans say are extremely important for the nation.

I think Americans have become discouraged by the political rhetoric and the absence of any real progress. I’ve had enough “education Presidents” and “education Governors” for my lifetime. I’m actually pleased that so far there are no politicians claiming to be trailblazers on the path to competency based learning. The move to competency is coming from grassroots educators, business leaders, and parent and community leaders.

10) In what ways does the recently passed ESSA support or encourage the development of new systems like competency based learning?

The ESSA gives states flexibility to redesign assessments and to rethink accountability for new learning models. It limits federal power to set national curriculum and opens the opportunity for new systems to be created. It supports the concept of personalized learning.

Now is the time for states and local districts to step up to the challenge and opportunity to embrace a systems model that can help far more kids succeed. Over-Tested and Under-Prepared offers readers a framework for creating change at every level of education, from early childhood to university and lifelong learning.

11) What have I neglected to ask?

Lots of folks are discouraged by the state of US schools, all the negative press, and the high-stress environments that have been created in many schools. For these educators, parents, and community leaders, I suggest that it is time to quit fiddling around with a fundamentally flawed instructional system, and seize the opportunity to lead the way toward competency.

We are at the inception of the most exciting time in the history of education. For those who are ready to innovate, the opportunities to lead and create are endless. You can construct competency based learning systems that bring learning alive for our children, offer the most effective antidote to poverty, bring respect and collegiality back to the profession of teaching, and create a more productive and peaceful world for all our children.

Bob Sornson, Ph.D.Bob Sornson, Ph.D. is the founder of the Early Learning Foundation. He is a national leader calling for programs and practices which support early learning success, competency based learning, and parent engagement. Contact:

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