Virtual School Meanderings

August 23, 2013

REL Research Update Newsletter Summer 2013

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Midwest Regional Educational Laboratory at American Institutes for Research

Research Update

Summer 2013
Vol. 2, No. 5

Computer class teacher helping studentsWelcome

REL Midwest is one of 10 regional educational laboratories funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and is administered by American Institutes for Research (AIR). Each edition of REL Midwest’s Research Update brings you news of how our scope of work is unfolding in your state and across the region, offers information about resources available from the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Program and other research and technical assistance providers, and highlights important topics within education research. In this issue, we provide an introduction to competency-based education—a flexible structure that emphasizes student mastery of academic content regardless of where, when, or at what pace that mastery occurs—and a preview of our upcoming public television broadcast on the topic.


Featured Topic
Competency-Based Education

News, Events, and Activities
Learn about people, organizations, and issues in the region.

Resources to Explore

Contact Us
REL Midwest
1120 East Diehl Road
Suite 200
Naperville, IL 60563-1486

Our Work

Introduction to Competency-Based Education

Competency-based education (CBE) is becoming a more widely discussed topic in education research, policy, and practice conversations at the local, state, and national levels. Many current policies and practices center on the “Carnegie Unit” system where student progress between grade levels is measured in part based on “seat time” instead of mastery. In a competency-based setting, progress is intended to become a function of demonstrated mastery or proficiency, measured against a set of explicit, measureable, and transferable learning objectives, rather than a function of seat time.

Although the terminology surrounding CBE varies—including performance-based, proficiency-based, standards-based, and competency-based education—elements of competency-based education have been applied in various settings.

For example, U.S. Department of Education programs such as Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation Fund can provide K–12 agencies with the flexibility and resources to implement competency-based education policies (Pace, 2013). The U.S. Department of Education issued a recent letter encouraging higher education institutions to consider “direct assessment programs” that move away from the emphasis on credit hours and toward proficiency.

Digital learning tools have made the implementation of competency-based learning systems more feasible for some schools and districts. For instance, virtual learning technologies enable students to learn at their own pace through online coursework provided at any time and in any place.

In the Midwest, Iowa has been recognized by the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) as a leader in the implementation of competency-based policies for primary and secondary education. A preliminary report from Iowa’s Competency-Based Education Task Force suggests that pilot competency-based programs in two school districts are positively related to student engagement and attendance.

In other states, Wisconsin has been experimenting with the development of proficiency-based bachelor’s degrees, Ohio has implemented the delivery of tailored learning experiences through its credit flexibility policy, and Michigan has experimented with seat-time waivers.

Schools, districts, and states that are implementing competency-based approaches are charting new territory, providing an opportunity to learn more about these efforts and build on the limited research base. As part of our work within the regional priority of college and career readiness, REL Midwest is assisting the Iowa Department of Education in a survey of districts implementing a competency-based program. We also are supporting the dissemination of information about CBE in the region through our Making Connections event series.

Tune in for More on CBE

At 10 p.m. on Monday, September 2, at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, September 3, and at 11 a.m. on Sunday, September 8, 2013 (all Central Time), Illinois public television viewers can watch Implementing Competency-Based Education Practices in the Midwest, a REL Midwest Making Connections event produced with WTTW in Chicago. Later in September, the program archive will be accessible from the REL Midwest website.

The one-hour program on WTTW Prime features Elizabeth A. Jones, Ph.D., professor of education at Holy Family University, and an author of the National Center for Education Statistics report Defining and Assessing Learning: Exploring Competency-Based Initiatives. A lively discussion among Dr. Jones; Sandra Dop, Ph.D. (Iowa Department of Education); Pat Trotter (Kentucky Department of Education); Jeffrey Lewis, Ed.D. (Dayton STEM School in Ohio); and Roberta Selleck, Ph.D. (Freeport School District 145 in Illinois) is moderated by AIR Senior Policy Analyst Sara Wraight.

Viewers will hear examples of how CBE practices are being implemented in schools and districts in Ohio and Illinois, including how CBE can contribute to a collaborative learning environment in which students are expected to become active owners of their individual learning. Dr. Selleck notes that CBE attempts to shift the focus so that education becomes something done with children instead of to them.

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News, Events, and Activities

  • Exploring Implications for State Policy in Competency-Based Education, a recent webinar presented by the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) and the College and Career Readiness and Success Center at AIR, highlighted current efforts across the country, identified promising practices in states, and shared available resources. The webinar is archived on AYPF’s YouTube channel.
  • Encouraging Mathematical Thinking in Early Childhood Education, a REL Midwest public television event, was taped at WFYI in Indianapolis on August 21, 2013, for broadcast on Thursday, September 26, 2013, at 9 p.m. (Eastern Time). The program examines the significance of engaging preschool-age children in mathematical thinking, describes research-based interventions that encourage early childhood mathematics, and suggests tools and supports for teachers in early childhood programs. Featured are Douglas Clements, Ph.D., Kennedy Endowed Chair in Early Learning and professor at the University of Denver, who discusses his work on the learning trajectories of preschool-age children and the research-based interventions that develop young children’s mathematical thinking. Also featured are Charlie Geier, director of early learning and intervention at the Indiana Department of Education; Dana Jones, an early learning specialist at the Indiana Department of Education; and Ted Maple, chief executive officer of Day Nursery Association of Indianapolis.
  • Using Research-Based Strategies for School Improvement in Ohio, a REL Midwest public television event taped on April 15, 2013, in Cleveland, Ohio, is available online. This one-hour program features a presentation by Sam Stringfield, Ph.D., a University of Cincinnati researcher. Dr. Stringfield discusses the IES practice guide, Turning Around Chronically Low-Performing Schools, and his study, Sustaining Turnaround at the School and District Levels: The High Reliability Schools Project at Sandfields Secondary School. The event also features a moderated panel discussion featuring Pamela VanHorn, director of the Ohio Network for Innovation and Improvement; Jessica Johnson, managing director for district and school improvement at AIR; and Elaine Lawless, principal of North Franklin Elementary School. They discuss how the Ohio Department of Education and local practitioners implement the practices suggested in the IES practice guide.
  • Thoughtful Partners, Responsive Support, the kickoff webinar from the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders (GTL Center) at AIR, is archived online. Viewers will discover ways to access the GTL Center’s technical assistance services and tour the redesigned website. Also featured is a preview of tools and resources coming in the year ahead, including “Following the Roadmap,” a four-part professional learning module series on designing comprehensive teacher evaluation systems.
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Resources to Explore

  • On the topic of competency-based learning, the U.S. Department of Education’s website provides links to information about state and district efforts.
  • Among the resources available on the website of the National Governors Association is State Strategies for Awarding Credit to Support Student Learning, an issue brief released on February 1, 2012. The brief focuses on the implications of awarding course credits based on student mastery of skills and content.
  • According to its website, iNACOL “supports activities and policies that remove barriers and support effective online and blended education, new learning models, and competency-based education practices.” A number of iNACOL resources on the topic of competency-based education are publicly available online.
  • EdSteps, led by CCSSO, “seeks to give teachers, parents, and students a Web-based resource for comparing their student work to that of other students.” CCSSO has brought together a group of states in an Innovation Lab Network to “identify, test and implement student-centered approaches to learning.”
  • CompetencyWorks is a collaborative initiative led by iNACOL, with project management support from MetisNet and funding from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the Donnell-Kay Foundation. Online resources include a number of briefing papers.
  • Ask a REL is a collaborative reference desk service designed to function in much the same way as a technical reference library. Following established search protocols, our researchers provide timely responses to your questions in the form of referrals and references. Submit your question online today.
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Contact Us

For more information about any of the items in this newsletter or to speak with a member of our staff, please contact us by telephone (866-730-6735) or e-mail ( We look forward to hearing from you.

REL Midwest at American Institutes for Research
1120 East Diehl Road, Suite 200
Naperville, IL 60563-1486

This material was prepared under Contract ED-IES-12-C-0004 by Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest, administered by American Institutes for Research. The content of the publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. This publication is in the public domain. Authorization to reproduce in whole or in part for educational purposes is granted.
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