BCSD approves competency-based curriculum to keep students from falling behind

The Berkeley County School Board deliberated on a new curriculum.

The Berkeley County School Board has unanimously approved implementing a three-year pilot program for competency-based learning at one school in Berkeley County.

Next school year, Westview Elementary School will be implementing the program in all its third-grade classrooms. This program will last three years and test to see if this new type of learning is better for district students.

Westview Elementary is no stranger to competency-based learning, also called personalized-learning. The school has been utilizing the same techniques the past year.

Competency-based learning provides students a more personalized plan in the classroom, allowing flexibility in the way their work is critiqued. While not assigned grades via a normal letter-based grading scale, students’ performances are scored using a ranking of four separate categories. From lowest to highest they include emerging, developing, demonstrating and applying.

Students are evaluated based on their original understanding of a topic and are then, based on their current abilities, placed on an individualized learning path. Also taken into account are students’ learning styles such as visual, auditory and kinetic, among others.

The goal of this type of learning is to ensure that students have the ability to not only understand concepts but to also apply their knowledge in other ways outside of tests and classwork.

“We want students who can problem solve and work with others,” said Shawn Wimmer, principal of Westview Elementary.

Wimmer explained that this type of learning is designed to make sure that all students have the same chance to master the material and show proficiency in the classroom. She also explained that it recognizes that there are different ways to show an understanding of materials.

“Kids can demonstrate mastery in a variety of ways,” Wimmer said.

In competency-based education, students also maintain more control of their education and can help build their own personalized learning path. Basically, a student can push the pace of one’s learning.

Also, in the case of Westview Elementary, the students lead their parent-teacher conferences about their learning plan and advancement.

“We want students to own their learning,” Wimmer said.

The classrooms have also changed. Students have the freedom to choose how they learn and also what type of desk and chair they sit in during class. Some students even work outside of the classroom in the hallways as part of hands-on work.

“Every space is a learning space,” said Kelly Wulf, chief academics and innovations officer for BCSD.

Instead of receiving a report card with traditional letters and numbers, each student receives a learning profile that charts their knowledge and skill progress in various subjects like reading and math.

Wimmer said that this can help the school visualize students who are falling behind and give an exact area of the curriculum where they need improvement. This prevents students from falling behind their peers, which frequently occurred in the past when teachers taught subjects in units.

“We can’t hold anyone behind this way,” Wimmer said.

According to Wulf, competency-based learning will also aid students who advance at faster paces, by giving them more challenging work.

“This maximizes every child’s potential in the classroom,” Wulf said.

Wimmer also emphasized that the students all have the same goals in the classroom and for their grade. However, students may need different paths to reach that goal.

“Everybody’s endgame is the same — how we get there may be different,” Wimmer said.

Competency-based learning also incorporates world-class skills such as creativity and problem solving. Wulf said that competency-based learning allows students to take educational risks, a trait she believes is missing from current educational practices.

“We have kids coming out of school and are afraid to take risks,” Wulf said.

She also explained that when students take the lead in their learning they also benefit teachers, who can not only focus on teaching instead of meeting deadlines but also exercise freedom in their teaching methods. Teachers instead become facilitators in the classroom, pushing students’ drive to learn more and advance.

“It gives teachers ownership to have creativity,” Wulf said. “Teachers can get back to teaching and doing what they love.”

The goal is for all Berkeley County schools to one day have competency-based education.

“Eventually we would like to see it move all the way up the feeder,” Wulf said. “If you want to re-design education, this is how you do it.”

Several other states, like Maine, Ne Hampshire and Rhode Island, have already implemented competency-based education; and colleges nationwide are producing competency-based transcripts as well.

According to Wulf, it’s vital that educators ask what their goal is for students.

“Are we about kids passing a test and forgetting the information or are we about learning?” she said.