Opinion: A better history of competency-based education


Published: 07-06-2023 6:00 AM

Carisa Corrow of Penacook is co-author of “126 Falsehoods We Believe About Education” and founder of Educating for Good.

Ethan DeWitt’s recent article in the New Hampshire Bulletin highlighted for me how much folks misunderstand competency-based education (CBE) in New Hampshire, including what it is, how it’s been implemented and its relationship to the minimum standards.

Most interesting to me is the alignment of the push for CBE to the hopes of “state officials and conservative education advocates.” In reality, they have actively been undermining competency-based education efforts by continuing to focus on standardized test scores as the measurement of school quality, while diverting money from the public school system to private education. It’s also important to note that many conservative education advocates in the state have actively been working against competency-based education implementation long before this current 306 debate.

The successes of Parker Varney also seemed to be assigned to the current state administration. Actually, that work started years ago under different education leaders and has endured because of Parker Varney teachers, despite underfunding and Edelblut’s abandonment of a federal waiver New Hampshire received to approach assessment in a way more closely aligned to CBE.

What is most frustrating is the lack of getting at the nuances at the center of the debate and instead seeming to assign pro-competency based education to conservatives and status-quo thinking to more progressive leaders. While quotes may be accurate, there’s a lot of gray space and history that needs to be filled in if we’re to have an honest conversation about the minimum standards.

One of the conservative arguments against CBE is that there is no research that supports its efficacy. The problem is that the only evidence critics want to use is the evidence provided by standardized tests, which are not effective in understanding what students know and can do and are rooted in psychometric theory, a theory that grew out of eugenic ideology.

When we allow standardized tests like NAEP, SAT and the other myriad of multiple guess and low rigor tests to shape our understanding of the quality of our schools, we limit the picture of our students’ full abilities and the good work of schools. Competency-based education helps tell better stories of learning. And, since New Hampshire was brave enough to lead the way over twenty years ago, a body of evidence from across the country that supports its effectiveness has emerged.

And, we never needed this evidence to prove competency-based education is a better model. Memorization, sit and get and lectured-based education doesn’t work for most — ask a few family members, friends or neighbors about their school experience and you are sure to find lots of examples. We learn and demonstrate learning by doing, practicing, creating and explaining.

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Communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and self-direction have always been the skills developed by our most successful citizens. Standardized tests cannot assess these skills. Do we want kids to read? Yes. Do we want them to do math? Absolutely. But to what end? Do we just want cogs in a machine? No. We want creators, innovators, and thinkers. Competency-based education is the path there.

Over 20 years ago, leaders in New Hampshire recognized this better path, and so they created a policy to shift us. What they didn’t know at the time was how to get the entire state, including teachers, to see a different way. They created a CBE mandate that was not funded, which made implementation at the local level varied. By the time New Hampshire got some real steam behind the move, Edelblut was appointed and much of the work halted, including the abandonment of PACE.

As a competency-based practitioner since 2002, there are some updates in the standards I agree with, but that’s not the point. The process is the point. Everyone involved thus far was appointed, from the commissioner to the Board of Education to Fred Bramante, described as the “architect” of the plan. The current draft is a representation of their hopes, not necessarily the community. Anything added or omitted should be part of an inclusive statewide process where a group of diverse perspectives comes together to reflect and update the standards that will essentially guide the development of the next New Hampshire community.

Bramante’s presentations around the state have heavily focused on competency-based education and trying to educate folks on its merits, his passion. Clearly, based on DeWitt’s reporting, he has won over some conservative folks like Ryan Terrell. This, however, distracts from the blatant and clear omission of language about fairness and equity as well as removal of specific language from the New Hampshire state constitution that ties the standards to our founding documents.

It’s a smoke and mirrors show. Get folks to look here, while we make some other detrimental tweaks there. That’s the real story.