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Opinion: K-12 Must Focus on Proficiency, Not Time in Class

With emerging, data-driven approaches to instruction and mounting evidence of learning loss during the pandemic, K-12 schools should question the wisdom of putting all students through the same classes at the same pace.

Teacher and His Pupils Work on a Programable Robot with LED Illumination for School Science Class Project.
As I have written and spoken about for years, including here at the Center for Digital Education, almost all schools are based on time — seat time. Students attend classes for a certain number of minutes a day or week for a certain number of weeks and then get a letter grade. Teachers have to cover all of the material and give enough tests to determine what (meaningless) letter grade to give the student as the only indicator of success.

The flaw in the time-based school system is that when time is constant, learning is the variable, if it occurs at all. I often share a short Modern Classrooms Project video that outlines some of the many reasons that time-based systems fail. In any time-based classroom, we know that many students are bored and many others are lost. For a range of reasons, some heartbreaking, not all students are ready for that day’s lesson.

As I have shared before, there is a revolution happening in education that takes many names — proficiency-based, competency-based, mastery-based — all focused on an approach that makes learning the constant and time the variable. From here on, I will use “proficiency” to cover all of these terms.

The sobering fact is that time-based, industrial-model schools were failing our students before COVID. Post-COVID, we know that gaps in knowledge, and even the essential ability to read, have grown wider. Our schools face impossible challenges because academics is not the only area of concern. Focusing on academics, it is impossible for teachers to address their student’s varied abilities unless they transform their classrooms. The traditional time-based framework of education cannot address this crisis — the crisis of students in the same class with very different learning needs and with an even wider range of academic achievement. That’s where proficiency-based approaches that address the range of individual student needs in a single classroom come to the rescue.

Now more than ever, it is clear to me that eventually all schools must transition, and they will transition, from time-based to learning-based approaches. Today there are more and more schools, districts and states making that transition than ever before. Check out Lindsay Unified School District’s performance-based system that has been in place since 2007, which they describe as “[a]n innovative, learner-centered approach to learning. In a performance-based system, learners work at their performance level and advance through the curriculum when they have demonstrated proficiency of the required knowledge or skills.”

And don’t miss Utah’s Personalized, Competency-Based Learning Initiative that I discussed here in May.

It is interesting to note that this transition to proficiency is not limited to K-12 education. For example, Western Governors University is also leaning into the idea with online classes, advertising that “WGU’s approach to learning is designed to fit your learning style, your schedule, your life. All of our online degree programs are competency-based, which means you’ll earn your online degree as soon as you can demonstrate that you’ve mastered the material.” At Oregon Health Sciences University, the School of Medicine is using “flipped classrooms” and “guided, self-directed learning customized to each student’s learning experiences.”

There are more groups and organizations, more books and materials, and more individuals and teams available to help educators make this transition. Some of the top ones are Modern Classrooms Project, Aurora Institute’s Competency Works and KnowledgeWorks.

To help educators think about and then make this transition to proficiency, there are two new books that both receive my highest recommendation:

  • Michael Horn’s From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)Creating School for Every Child is a must-read for all educators (and for all parents who want a better education for their children).

  • Jon Bergmann’s The Mastery Learning Handbook: A Competency-Based Approach to Student Achievement was just released. I had the privilege of being one of the advance readers, and I see this as the missing link that will help teachers learn the ins and outs of how to implement a mastery/competency-based curriculum one lesson at a time.

Next month I will discuss each book in depth. Meanwhile, I hope that more classrooms, schools and districts move on the path to proficiency. It’s the right thing to do.
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.