Carnegie or Competency?

One method measures learning by class or instructional time, the other requires demonstration of mastery in a specific skill or learning outcome. One is a traditional yardstick, the other comparatively new-fangled. Either way, the debate is growing about whether “seat time” (measured by the Carnegie Unit) or competency-based assessment is more suited for today’s 21st-century economy, in which young people need to have a broad range of knowledge and skills and be able to apply them to complex and novel situations to succeed.

In states like New Hampshire, Oregon, and Rhode Island, districts have formally begun to adopt competency-based systems in place of time-based ones. Such systems allow greater flexibility to gain credit for activities beyond the school day. On Monday, the American Youth Policy Forum hosted a webinar on one such system in Providence, RI. The Hub is a collaborative initiative between the Providence After School Alliance (PASA), Providence Public Schools, and community providers, in which high school students can earn school credit for “expanded learning opportunities” (ELOs)—rigorous learning experiences that take place outside of school.

Patrick Duhon, Director of Expanded Learning for Providence Public Schools, commented that schools desire an alignment between expanded learning programs and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). ELOs can offer this. Courses range in content, from mobile app development to photography to debate, and many of the community-based organizations offering them have already aligned their work with industry, college-readiness, and Common Core standards. Students demonstrate competency through a variety of means, including blog writing, online portfolios, digital badges, and end-of-term community presentations, which also help them meet the CCSS. Currently, students can receive only elective credit for these courses, but there have been conversations about offering credit for core content areas in the future.

The webinar also highlighted the role of the intermediary organization—in this case, PASA. Hillary Salmons, PASA’s executive director, said that the intermediary facilitates collaboration between schools and community partners and helps build trust in the program, especially among teachers. PASA provides coaching on youth development and helps align community programming to the needs of the school district. It also monitors program quality, using the Weikart Center’s Youth Program Quality Assessment, attendance measures, and rubrics developed jointly by in-school and out-of-school staff. Meanwhile, the community educator is also supported by the district, working alongside a teacher of record to develop a curriculum plan for approval by the central office. The teacher of record continues to be involved through the end of the term, when he or she is responsible for giving the student a grade.

What is most fascinating about this strategy is that it is truly a community effort. From developing a course plan all the way through to assessing competency, multiple stakeholders—including community-based providers, school teachers, central office staff, and industry experts—are involved. What’s more, the work has broad buy-in from school stakeholders and the community at large. That would not have been possible without an intermediary to organize and bring these groups together.

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