MN Senate Introduces Competency-Based Education Bill. Four Reasons Why It’s Needed.

January 31, 2019 • Lars Esdal

Last week, the Minnesota Senate introduced a bill (SF485) that would explicitly authorize schools and districts to do competency-based education (CBE).

The bill is the culmination of conversations and collaboration with over 100 educators, students, legislators, and advocates around Minnesota over the last two years. Its purpose is to create space and the opportunity for public schools to catalyze richer, more equitable, student-centered learning experiences for students.

What is competency-based education?

Competency-based education—also called outcomes-based, proficiency-based, mastery-based, or performance-based education—is an approach in which student learning is oriented around mastering clearly-articulated, measurable learning outcomes (i.e. competencies) that are aligned to state standards.

CBE departs from conventional school models in which learning is oriented around moving through courses, credits, and grades based primarily on the time students spend in seats. Specifically, we point to five key characteristics of schools designed around CBE:

  1. Students advance by demonstrating mastery of competencies.
  2. Competencies are clearly defined, explicit, and measurable sets of knowledge and skills.
  3. Assessment is authentic, meaningful, and a positive learning experience for students.
  4. Students receive rapid, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  5. Competencies are defined to include important 21st-century skills and mindsets, in addition to academic content.

What does the bill do, specifically?

While some Minnesota schools and districts are already experimenting with competency-based school designs today, the educators we’ve spoken with have indicated that state statute is not clear enough—given long standing traditions of orienting learning around seat time-based courses, credits, and grades—that CBE can be done.

The bill explicitly permits a school district or charter school to adopt and carry out a locally-developed plan for implementing CBE. Importantly, the law would not mandate districts or public schools to implement CBE, but rather legitimizes it and creates the opportunity for those who are ready. Further, it does not waive MCA requirements nor allow districts to collect revenue for students in excess of 1.0 ADM.

Why does competency-based education matter?

There are several benefits from shifting to a competency-based learning model, including:

1. It encourages equitably supporting all students. Students get extra help filling in gaps when they’re struggling to master a concept, and extra opportunities to be challenged in areas where they’re excelling—rather than being marched along in a standardized system that too often tolerates, and over time exacerbates, gaps in achievement or causes students to become disengaged because they are not being challenged

2. It reorients learning around authentic outcomes and assessments. Students take ownership of their learning objectives, and have more opportunities to demonstrate success in that learning through authentic assessments based on real work products like performance assessments, portfolios, and exhibitions. Rather than checking off boxes for standards and courses, students see their learning as having a goal and a purpose.

3. It can elevate 21st-century and social-emotional skills. To be prepared for the 21st century, students will need to develop many skills in addition to core academics—skills like problem solving, persistence, creativity, understanding the experiences of others, and more. In CBE models, schools incorporate these important sets of 21st-century knowledge and skills when they are defining competencies, in addition to the state academic standards, in a seamless fashion which results in them being embedded into the learning.

4. Finally, and most substantially, it opens the door to more student-centered forms of learning, overall. When learning is oriented around competencies rather than only seat time-based courses and credits, it opens up doors for students, educators, families, and communities, to design more authentic forms of student-centered learning. For example, under CBE, students have opportunities to:

  • Build meaningful relationships with their teachers, who help coach and guide them through their own personal learning journeys, rather than only convey information;
  • Work on meeting their target competencies anytime and anywhere, including out in the community, at internships, or through service projects;
  • Exercise greater choice and agency in how they meet those competencies, particularly in ways that are relevant to their interests, identities, and backgrounds;
  • And more!

We look forward to continuing to work with authors Senator Nelson, Senator Wiger, Senator Anderson, and Senator Clausen, as well as other legislators and organizations to advance competency-based legislation, and will continue to follow and report on the progress here on our blog.