Competency-Based Education Catches On at Prairie Lakes AEA

“Timing is everything,” the adage states. For some Iowa schools, the timing is right to break from the traditional high school model and pursue a better system—competency-based (CBE) pathways.

While competency-based pathways have been available to Iowa school districts for some time, interest skyrocketed when the State Board of Education made it one of its priorities in 2011. Then a forum in December 2011 featured practitioners and students who are implementing competency-based education in such states as Alaska, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. Participants examined research and considered how to evaluate the impact of competency-based education reforms. This forum also gave participants an opportunity to start making plans to implement this approach.

Approval to move forward was simple; the local school board must approve the request to be waived from the seat time requirements for credit toward high school graduation. The district must also demonstrate collaboration with local community or with school improvement advisory committee. A signed waiver request was due to the Iowa Department of Education in January 2012.

PLAEA Waiver SchoolsIowa school districts submitted a total of 28 waivers for the 2012-13 school year. What’s interesting? Nine of those 28 waivers (one-third) are from schools within Prairie Lakes AEA (PLAEA). Why are so many schools from one region interested in a system where students earn credit and advance based on their mastery of content rather than their age or the hours they’ve devoted to a course?

Perhaps it’s the predominantly rural geography that has given school leaders “permission” to think differently. As the 1-to-1 programs began to sprout in Iowa, PLAEA has had the most schools involved in some sort of 1-to-1 initiative. Access to high-quality instruction is just a click away.

“Our rural schools have figured out that they need to do something to set them apart,” said PLAEA chief administrator Jeff Herzberg. “Faced with declining resources, both financially and in the number and quality of job applicants, our school leaders use creative and innovative strategies to connect their kids, families and teachers with additional resources to enhance their education.”

Perhaps it is the connection that Herzberg established with Fred Bramante, who led a major effort to review and successfully revise the state education policies in New Hampshire. Herzberg attended a national conference in 2012 where Bramante was a featured speaker. The two joined forces on the Department of Education Design Team focused on CBE, and in late 2011, Bramante joined an area superintendents’ meeting via Skype to share more details and answer questions. As chairman of the New Hampshire State Board, Bramante was charged by the governor with the responsibility to lead New Hampshire’s first full-scale education reform effort since 1919. The results of Bramante’s efforts led to landmark changes in New Hampshire’s education regulations including the move from credit for seat time (the number of hours a student spends in class, known as the Carnegie Unit), to credit for demonstrated learning (anytime, anyplace, anyhow, any pace).

Perhaps it is the results-only work environment (ROWE) pilot that PLAEA has pursued this year. The book with a provocative title, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution by Carl Ressler and Jody Thompson presents a management strategy where employees are evaluated on performance, not presence. In a ROWE, people focus on results and only results—increasing the organization’s performance while creating the right climate for people to manage all the demands in their lives, including work. About 50 PLAEA staff members are in this pilot and working in this new “workplace for adults.”

“We like to think of ROWE as CBE for the workplace,” Herzberg said. “Much like school, work needs to change from the current factory model that is still in place.”

Perhaps it was a combination of any and all of these factors. What do we know? To use Bramante’s phrase, our attitude and approach to “managing abundance” rather than scarcity has opened doors for those in rural Iowa. We look forward to partnership with our districts on the journey to revolutionize Iowa’s education system and create the best system for our kids.

When given the opportunity to do something different, how many of us seize the moment and capitalize on the prospect of a new adventure?

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