Competency-Based Education (Part 1)

By | January 27, 2015

Higher education -indeed, virtually all education – is quantized in the form of the “credit hour” -the famous Carnegie Unit. I have been convinced for many years now that the Carnegie Unit is just about the dumbest possible way to package student learning. It exists almost entirely for the convenience of the instructor and even more importantly, the institution – it’s a record-keeping and control device, nothing more. It came into being just as educational system were being shoehorned into the “factory model” for creating docile and compliant workers for the industrial society. It does little to meaningfully describe how or what students learn, and by emphasizing activity over content, it fails even in its basic mission of certifying useful chunks of student learning. In short, it disastrous consequences for education have been accumulating for a long time, and it is high time that we work out some useful alternatives.

But what might that entail? One approach that has been receiving some interesting attention of late is what’s called “competency-based education” (CBE). It’s a lot more complicated than I can deal with here, but the basic idea is that education ought to be focused around things that people learn how to do rather than things that they presumably know, and that the educational system should support and document the development of such “competencies”. A good place to begin to learn about this approach is the Department of Labor’s Competency Model Clearinghouse.

There’s been a lot of consideration of CBE on the usual LinkedIn discussion boards (for example, here and here), and a certain amount of what follows here derives from some comments I made there. There’s certainly no shortage of opinions about the topic, so I thought it might be useful to summarize some of my own perspectives about it.

I love education, and I love competence. If competency based education were simply about education leading to competence, I’d be fine with that. But there is a central aspect to CBE that bothers me – the fact that it is still deeply rooted in certification.The Carnegie Unit is certification embodied, although it really only certifies to a degree of sitzfleisch on the part of the student. I’m worried that with its emphasis on certification, CBE may be missing the point of what’s really need in a reformed education system – that is, holistic learning across all one’s life. Ever since I encountered Ivan Illich at an early age, I’ve been deeply suspicious of any “reform” agendas that seem more interested in improving current practices than in replacing them.

A large part of the immediate interest in developing certification systems within the schools through CBE seems to me to be mainly about overcoming the (often) rightly held perception that students are emerging from the system often lacking key parts of their education. (In Part 4 of this series I’ll discuss this point further.) But I’m not convinced that making up deficits in specific skills that employers want can or ought to be the job of the schools. If an employer needs to have people who can do specific things in his factory or office, shouldn’t he have the responsibility to train them? If the schools train students in specific skills needed by local employers, doesn’t that edge close to indentured servitude? If you as a student are trained in several skills and the only employer around for 50 miles who needs those skills is the local chicken processing plant, doesn’t that pretty much ensure that you’ll spend the rest of your working life up to your knees in chicken parts?

With regard to global and transferable skills, companies like Microsoft and Cisco have done a pretty good job of setting up their own training and certification systems, and the industry has standardized on them. Should the schools take over the process of giving out MCSEs? And just how global or even national are curricula going to have to be to keep turning out people certified to be competent in endlessly different places? There is already a deadly uniformity in many areas of education today brought about partly by the “Common Core” And partly by the pervasive influence of textbook publishers and a few large states willing to throw their influence into the ring; witness the dumbing down of science and civics books as a result of the Texas Board’s deciding that six days is just about the same as roughly 13.7 billion years. We’re already losing too many kids who are smart but bored out of their skulls; further homogenization of curricula in the interests of efficient competency measurement wouldn’t help much with that problem!

The key to CBE is demonstrating competence, generally through an assessment instrument or process of some sort. When you take the assessment, you either pass – get your piece of paper telling the world that you are competent in Area X, which you can show to schools, employers, and the government, hang it on your wall, and maybe impress your visitors. Or you fail, remain defined as incompetent, and either keep doing whatever X requires or go to school and try again until you pass. Or maybe you just give up, figuring that the value of being X-competent isn’t worth the effort of proving it.

But here’s the rub – most significant areas of competence aren’t all-or-nothing, but rather sliding scales in multiple sub-areas, You may be great in sub-area Y and terrible in sub-area Z at the same time. Are you then by virtue of averaging half-competent in Area X? If you aren’t good at one part but perhaps very good at twenty other parts, does the one part forever forbid that you might be able to be declared competent> Or will the twenty parts swamp the one bad part?

As you might imagine, I’m not particularly impressed with certification, although I’ve piled up a lot over my lifetime, from a PhD in organizational behavior to a certificate of completion of a course in basic bricklaying in the Adult Education Program of the Arlington County Public Schools. Both of these have proved effective, although at different times and places. Obviously, they aren’t interchangeable – the PhD was of only tangential benefit in the course of the seven house remodels I’ve undertaken (it paid the Home Depot bills) while the bricklaying degree was a LOT of help; but I didn’t get much credit when applying for teaching or research jobs from being a good bricklayer. And if I’d applied for a job as a bricklayer, neither certification would have been of any value at all.

I think it admirable to try to measure competence. What I’m trying to figure out is if and how it might generalize to a whole new educational paradigm without bringing in a horde of new and even more intractable problems than those it set out to alleviate.

In subsequent parts of this series I’ll explore some of those problems in more detail, and consider responses that have been offered. Stay tuned.