It’s Time to Elevate the Leadership of Our Competency-Based Education Districts in the Shift to Remote Learning

In a matter of weeks, the COVID-19 crisis forced a massive shift in teaching and learning across Illinois. Based on the current re-opening scenarios it’s unlikely we will be able to return to statewide, sustained traditional schooling in the fall. Even when such a return is possible, many educators across our state will want to use their recent investments in technology to make lasting improvements to instruction and instructional delivery. The abrupt shift to remote learning has forced us to consider how to:

  • Stimulate student-driven learning focused on clear targets rather than assigning time-filling activities that don’t translate well over Google Hangout or Zoom.
  • Create performance-based assessments, recognizing that traditionally formatted tests like those with multiple-choice items have questionable validity when taken from home.
  • Give students the flexibility to learn anytime, since many are monitoring younger siblings or working to support their families.

Fortunately, through its competency-based education (CBE) pilot, Illinois has fostered the development of instructional delivery systems that illuminate approaches to address these challenges. The Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness (PWR) Act, enacted by the General Assembly in 2016, created a new statewide pilot program for school districts to implement CBE models that allow students more flexibility to progress based on mastery of concepts rather than seat time. The pilot structure in the PWR Act embeds CBE in a comprehensive framework for college and career readiness, while requiring collaborative implementation across administrators and teachers. Over the last four years, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) spearheaded the growth of the pilot from a legislative concept to a statewide program involving 47 school districts. Entering the 2019-20 school year, many in the state thought it appropriate to pump the brakes on the program’s growth and to assess the impacts in the early CBE implementation sites. But that thinking was all pre-COVID. Now, with every district in Illinois making dramatic shifts to implement remote learning and address learning loss, we need to turn to our CBE pilots more than ever to inform our state’s future direction.

The CBE pilot sites have spent considerable time and resources implementing flexible and resilient instructional systems that emphasize self-directed learning, clear learning targets, meaningful assessment, and anytime, anywhere learning. CBE models clearly align with ISBE’s directive to embrace the principal of “no educational harm to any child” since CBE allows students to advance at their own pace without following predetermined schedules that can result in incomplete or failing grades. On a recent call we had with the CBE pilots, an overwhelming majority said they were better prepared for the shift to remote learning. Almost all the pilots are viewing their CBE work as a core part of their strategy for addressing learning loss next year.

In order for other Illinois districts to benefit from the pilot sites’ knowledge base, the State should do the following:

  • Establish a Community of Practice across all CBE pilot sites and other interested districts to allow key personnel to share site- and state-specific concerns and to strategize with each other toward solutions.
  • Document and publicize the innovative models emerging from the pilots, including
    1. The self-directed learning platforms established at Ridgewood High School that provide personalized, meaningful experiences so students can learn anytime, anywhere while embracing the principal of no educational harm.
    2. The flexible scheduling and focus on core criteria and core performance tasks at Williamsfield Schools which increase in complexity as students demonstrate mastery.
    3. The three pathways for a “5th Quarter” over the summer so Kankakee School District students will be able to engage for social/emotional assistance, get support to complete and submit work, and continue to learn and progress through levels of mastery.
  • Allow continued expansion of CBE for those districts that are not currently participating in the pilot but want to leverage CBE-based models in their shift to more flexible learning environments.

Illinois school districts will never return to the Fall 2019 status quo, nor should they. Our state needs to leverage opportunities to provide more flexible learning models that better engage teachers and students, and more closely connect with the communities they serve. With its pilot, Illinois has the foundation to be a national leader in addressing learning loss and personalized learning through the innovations of CBE. Now let’s mobilize the will and resources to do it.


Co-authored with Jon Furr

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