Adding Depth & Accuracy to Our Conversations About Competence-Based Education

A recent article in the Federalist left me disappointed with the state of our public discourse about many issues in education. In this article, Jane Robbins provided her critiques of competency-based education. Yet, while the title of the article was “Why ‘Competency-based Education’ Will Deepen America’s Education Crisis,” I finished the article realizing that only part of this article was actually about CBE. Instead, Robbins used CBE as a starting point, but proceeded to attach it to a half dozen other developments that she considers dangerous for education. I’ve read through her article several times. I want to be careful not to misrepresent her, so I encourage readers to check out the full article to understand the context in which many of the following ideas emerge in her own words. With that important caveat, below are arguments that Robbins seems to be making in the article (I am mostly restating in my own words), and I follow up each of those points with one or more considerations.

CBE is connected to Jeb Bush and his “minions” at the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Using the word “minions” seems to suggest to me that Robbins is not a fan of Bush’s ideas about education or those of the FEE. Yet, it is a dangerous generalization to suggest that FEE is the official voice of CBE. In fact, there are many viewpoints about and approaches to competency-based education. Check out the different ideas at the ComptencyWorks website. Look at the many models of CBE applied by members of the Competency-based Education Network. Talk to people who are in the trenches, experimenting with and learning about the benefits and limitations of CBE. CBE is not tied to a single political position or necessarily even a single educational philosophy. There is diversity of opinion and there are good debates taking place. The end goal need not the monopoly of a singular viewpoint.

CBE is pretty much the same as the outcome-based education of the 1990s and parents thought that was bad, so CBE is bad as well.

Yes and no. It is true that CBE is outcomes-based. People start with the end or outcome and then go back and build one or more pathways to reach that outcome. For example, it is possible that Robbins established the desired outcome of reaching an audience regarding her concerns about competency-based education. Or, perhaps it was more specific, like publishing an article for the Federalist on CBE. That was the outcome. Then, if this is the case, she determined the best path to achieve that outcome. The idea of having an end or outcome in mind, and then building a course of action from there is commonplace in education and much of life. It is not a concept that is owned by or limited to OBE or CBE.

The problem with associating CBE and OBE is that, while they have similarities, they are distinct discourses and developments in education. Even if OBE is bad for education, connecting these two is a bit like saying that you look like a particular convicted criminal, so you are likely a criminal as well. In fact, you likely have no formal association. Or, even if the person happens to be a close or distant relative, that does not make you guilty of the same or any crime. We are wise to analyze CBE with insight from the past, but also a recognition of what is new and distinct about the many current forms of CBE.

Inherent in CBE is the idea that the government should establish outcomes for education. Government setting outcomes is bad, which means that CBE is bad as well.

While some involved with government might have that viewpoint, I can say with confidence and from direct experience that this is an unhelpful and inaccurate generalization (if this is what Robbins meant). As I mentioned before, CBE is not a singular movement controlled by a small group that is committed to government-controlled outcomes for all of education. I have met people who want to see more government control of outcomes, but there is no direct connection between CBE and such people. Plenty of CBE advocates look to many different places for developing lists of competencies. Some look to business, government, local communities, professional associations, alumni, students, educators, and more. I see no evidence that CBE is part of some conspiracy for centralized government control of education. Some could misuse it in that way, but this is not inherent to CBE.

CBE has the word “competency” in it which is very similar to the word “competence.” “Competence” is less than “excellence” so this is an attempt to water things down in education, and that is bad.

Robbins’s statement about CBE being about lowering the bar also struck me as odd. Schools pass people with a “C” average all the time, even a “D” average. While I am not a fan of the letter grade system, for the sake of this argument, let us assume that one’s letter grade is evidence of academic excellence from a learner. If so, then the current system is already about letting people get by with sub-excellent performance. CBE does nothing to lower the bar compared to what we already have. In fact, you can set up CBE in many ways, some of which can recognize degrees of competence, or even performance that far exceeds a given competence. Setting a goal for oneself or for other learners is not, in and of itself, an act of lowering the bar. We must commit ourselves to more honest and substantive discussion of these points if we are going to have any hope of shared understanding and consensus.

CBE is interested in measurable evidence of learning and that doesn’t work for many disciplines, so CBE is bad.

Measurable evidence of learning precedes CBE. Every discipline assesses student learning and performance in some way, and I hope that these are not merely random thoughts and opinions. They are grounded on something and that something is evidence. Yes, CBE might have a more formal (and sometimes more narrow) approach than what we see in some contexts, but it is not that different from what we see in many disciplines. Before you become a doctor, you must provide measurable evidence that you are a doctor. The same goes for many professions, and most of us are okay with at least some of that.

With that said, as a person trained in the humanities, I agree that some learning experiences and valuable aspects of an education are not easily measured or quantified. It is possible that CBE can muzzle, ignore, or lead to devaluing of that reality. Yet, that doesn’t mean that CBE cannot and should not have a role in the education ecosystem, both in K-12 and higher education. Every technology (and CBE is a technology) has affordances and limitations, and we are wise to consider them.

Common Core and CBE are somehow related. CCSS are more about training than education. CCSS are bad, which means that CBE is as well.

Some combine Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and CBE in their minds, but again, these are different discourses. Such a critqiue risks being a bit like saying that some criminals listen to rock music so rock music is bad. I’m an outspoken critic of many aspects of CCSS (especially how people apply them), but many of the people with whom I speak who are advocates of CCSS know very little about CBE.

The government is more interested in non-cognitive skills than facts and content-area knowledge, and CBE is part of that agenda. As such, CBE is bad.

Yes, there is a growing interest in looking at learning in a more holistic way. Character traits, virtues, or what some others call non-cognitive schools are important to many of us. We’ve been talking about them in education for millennia. These are an important part of advocates for most any type of education at some point. Who is okay with saying that all we want is for students is to have a massive body of knowledge, but lack the character or traits to use this knowledge well? At the same time, there is a valid and valuable argument about emphases regarding non-cognitive skills versus content. Most people get that it is not an either-or debate.

More relevant to the immediate subject of this article, however, is the fact that there is no formal connection between CBE and teaching non-congitive skills, In fact, we are only in the infancy of learning how to measure some of these skills or traits.

There is an effort underway to collect as much data as possible about each student, and this can be used in many dangerous ways. This data collection benefits government and corporations, but not students. CBE is somehow connected to this effort, so CBE is bad.

The ethics of data among learners is incredibly important. However, CBE is not the only form of data collection. In fact, much of the data collection being attempted and discussed is not tied to CBE at all. Once more, Robbins seems to be making too strong of a connection between these two developments. There are logical connections, but they are not married.

Some are connecting CBE with a new form of credential know as digital badges. Badges are knowledge maps that allow companies to better identify prospective employees.

Badges are so much bigger and diverse than CBE. As a matter of fact, Dan Hickey just released (or it will soon be released) a study showing that some of the most successful badge programs backed away from associating badges with competencies. We can’t reduce the badge conversation to CBE. As Robbins seems to do repeatedly, she is connecting CBE with other trends as if they are fundamentally connected. They are not. You can find champions of badges who are skeptics about CBE, and champions of CBE who laugh off the idea of badges as some sort of obsessionion with the Boy Scouts (which, by the way, is an unhelpful and inaccurate simplification of badges).

This mapping of people’s competence and skills through some algorithmic system might be wrong. It could mis-label people.

This is true. It is a cause for concern, one that people are talking about, and they will continue to talk about it. CBE has affordances and limitations, but again, there are many ways to think about and apply the concept of CBE. There are also many ways to think about and apply the use of algorithmic systems for teaching and learning (ways often un-associated with CBE).

CBE will marginalize or maybe even replace teachers as education is reduced to machine learning.

Coaches, mentors, and subject matter experts continue to be valuable. Research continues to support the value of many roles and action often done by teachers. Some CBE programs do shift roles and responsibilities in new ways. I may be mistaken, but bringing this up comes off as a tactic to rally the teacher union troops against CBE as opposed to fostering a deeper and more substantive conversation about the role of teachers in different types of learning contexts.

The fact of the matter is that technology will, for better or worse, continue to transform how we learn in school and informally. This transformation is going to impact the teaching profession in profound ways. In fact, I do not need to talk about the future. This is already happening.

There is no evidence that CBE improves student achievement.

Now this is an interesting one. We have evidence that people are learning effectively via CBE. In addition, we see some new affordances in CBE often missed in other approaches to teaching and learning. For example, sometimes it allows us to identify gaps in learning that are holding a student back. There needs to be a more nuanced discussion of this one, because our goals related to student-success have more factors than some of the current and narrow measures of student achievement. This is true in CBE and non-CBE contexts alike.

I don’t know what role Robbins thinks standardized tests should play in education, but it interests me how many people who are concerned about the testing culture in school are some of the first to pull out the standardized test scores to make their case. Yet, if we are willing to look at individual implementations of CBE in specific higher education and K-12 contexts, we can find evidence that CBE is helping, doing nothing, and maybe even hurting learning. I say this without even going back and reviewing the literature at the moment, because we can find the same thing with almost any approach to teaching and learning.

CBE is tied to classroom computer use, and countries with less classroom computer use results in higher performance on international tests.

I will accept that there are many applications of CBE that rely upon technology. There are many applications of countless approaches to education that make use of technology. This seems to a distinct but related and important conversation. In the attempt to keep this article at a reasonable length, I’ll leave hold off on going further into the debate about the efficacy of technology in education. Suffice it to say that the truth is far more nuanced than saying that technology is making a difference or not.

Educational technology has largely failed to produce promised benefits in education. CBE is like that too.

While often combined, I must again point out that these two are not synonymous.

CBE is connected to “Propping students in front of screens to demonstrate “competencies.”

This is once more a broad assumption of what CBE constitutes. There is too much variety in approaches to CBE for this to be accurate.

CBE is antithetical to teaching as a “fundamentally social activity.”

It isn’t. I have witnessed highly social learning environments that also leverage CBE. In fact, some competencies even require that people are able to collaborate or communicate effectively. There are some learning contexts that are more social than others. This is not just about CBE.

There is a question about whether CBE is part of a larger vision of measured competency, technology-enhanced training resulting in badges and lots of data collection to profile learners an citizens. Students will be “reduced to cogs in the economic machine.”

Yes, this is a possible application and combination of these distinct technologies and developments, but this is speculation, and it is not representative of the diverse approaches to many of these developments in education today.

Rich proponents of CBE will not “expose their own children to it.”

We do not see many elite schools championing CBE. That is correct. We also do not see them providing the breadth of both educational and training opportunities in the modern education ecosystem. Not all of us want the elite school approach to education for our children. Some of us love the idea of our kids learning to code, developing financial literacy, learning to solve mechanical challenges, and so much more. Many of us do not want an education system for our children that is just replicated on what they do in the elite schools.

“CBE isn’t real education. It’s a mechanism for control. States must reject it.”

I usually avoid this word “insult” in my writing, but this seems like an insult to many of us who learned and developed personally valuable knowledge and skills through learning experiences that were competency-based in nature. I worry that such a sentiment can easily turn into an elitist mindset that is more about forcing someone else’s viewpoints on the entire system.

At the same time, I ultimately agree with Robbins. I see no value in States mandating a CBE approach to all of education. Our diversity of approaches is a strength in our system, and we are wise to protect and build upon that strength.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.

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