I first want to start with the why of competency education, so I'm going to start with a story. This is a story that illustrates the insidious nature of traditional grading. This is a story about a student named Sam—though for any teachers in the audience, I will be shocked if you don't have many similar stories like this.
Sam was my student. And she was a hardworking and gritty student. It was nearing the end of the semester and she came to my office hours and said, "Hey, Mike I have an 89.6 percent. What can I do to turn this into an A-minus?"
Operating inside the system of traditional grading, this is not an atypical question by any means. It is a question that Sam had learned to ask in the game of school she had been taught to play.
So often in a case like this, teachers either hide behind the numbers, something like, "Hey, sorry, Sam. The fact is your 0.4 percent short of the grade. A B-plus it is." Or they create some disconnected extra credit assignment that values compliance over learning.
What is so wrong with this?
First, in terms of the 0 to 100 scale, do we really think humans have the precision to decipher between that many gradations? Well, the research on grading shows vast bias and inconsistency in grading between teachers. Second, and more important to me, what did her question have to do about learning or improvement?
All of the important information about what she needed to improve on had been averaged away. It was in a collection of moments like that one talking with Sam that I realized the importance of analyzing the system of grading.
This system is insidious because it sets up the teacher as gatekeeper. It sets up the teacher as a sorter of students. Sam was not wrong to ask. She was right. She was playing within the system of traditional grading. So the system needs to change and competency learning and competency grading provides an alternative that puts learning front and center and puts teacher as mentor versus evaluator.
In terms of competency learning, for anyone in the audience who needs a push, and because the choir needs to rehearse, too—let's remember that our educational system is built on an outdated factory model. A model that cares more about efficiency than efficacy. A model that cares more about sorting kids than student learning. Although the world around is changing faster than ever before, our schools have remained largely unchanged for over 100 years.
And this is unacceptable.
Schools must develop flexible and creative problem solvers. With a global pandemic wreaking havoc on our health care and economy and systemic racism and other forms of oppression that need to be broken, we need students to have the intellectual and emotional endurance to solve the truly gnarly problems that are literally right in front of them.
Therefore, what we teach and what we assess must match the core competencies that students require to become the thinkers, to become the leaders, and to become the community members that the world so desperately needs.