Based Education

State and federal policymakers are increasingly talking about “competency-based learning” as the way of the future. In a competency-based system, students advance upon mastery. This model marks a sharp departure from the school system’s traditional metric:  hours spent in the classroom studying a specific subject.

At the turn of the 20th century, in an effort to standardize high school curricula and college admissions, a committee at the National Education Association determined that a satisfactory year’s work in a given high-school subject would require no fewer than 120 one-hour instructional periods. In 1909, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching codified this standard as the Carnegie unit, or credit unit. Since then, the education system has measured student progress in terms of instructional hours, not student learning. So long as a student logs the necessary hours and receives a passing grade, he can move on to the next course, regardless of gaps in his understanding. And a passing grade may be based in part on non-academic factors like attendance, extra credit, and good behavior, rather than demonstration of mastery.

Today, the Carnegie unit is showing its age, as more educators recognize that the time-based measure leaves students susceptible to moving on to material before they are ready, or remaining mired in a subject that they have already mastered. In addition to introducing flexible pacing, competency-based education attempts to import newfound rigor to the concept of “mastery.” In this new system, “competencies” describe what students should know,as well as what they should be able to do. Competency-based assessments aim to test students’ ability to demonstrate what they can do in real-world applications and across a variety of contexts.

Policies that allow institutions to measure student progress in terms of mastery rather than credit hours are beginning to take hold in K–12 and higher education. The U.S. Department of Education recently committed a wave of Experimental Sites Initiative funding to supporting competency-based approaches in postsecondary education, and more than 300 institutions are lining up to be among the approved experimenters. In K–12 education, states are following suit: 42 states have granted schools the flexibility to incorporate competency approaches in some form or fashion. Among states promoting K–12 efforts, New Hampshire has been a trailblazer.

In 2005, New Hampshire began to build a competency-based education policy and has eliminated the Carnegie unit in its high schools. As the first effort of its kind, New Hampshire’s example demonstrates both the power and limitations of statewide competency-based education policy.

The state’s move has enabled many innovative schools to transform the schooling experience for students. But spreading competency-based practice has also proven challenging in a state with a strong tradition of local control. One superintendent captured the wider sentiment when he said in an interview last year, “Frankly, a lot of superintendents don’t like the state telling them what to do in their districts.”

The state has struggled to balance a culture of autonomy with furnishing school districts with supports and guidance to move away from time-based practices. “The state is supportive in theory,” a New Hampshire school leader said. “They like the idea of competencies. I don’t think they’ve really thought through what has to happen for those things to be viable.” The challenge of providing meaningful supports is made more acute by the fact that the field at large is still attempting to research and understand exactly what is required—logistically, pedagogically, and culturally—to transition to a fully competency-based system. As a result, the state has found itself tasked not only with providing what districts say they need, but also with identifying still-emerging best practices in how to transition from time- to competency-based systems and structures.

Today, some New Hampshire school systems have embraced the flexibility that the state policy offers, whereas others remain tied to time-based practices. To support those early adopters and move those that are further behind, the state continues to develop and hone the guidance and infrastructure that can ease the transition. New Hampshire’s experience offers valuable lessons in what policies and practices stand to loosen the stronghold of the Carnegie unit on the nation’s approach to education.