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Why Competency-Based Education Can Be A Reasonable Idea


Recently, The Federalist published an article by Jane Robbins wherein she warns against competency-based education, or CBE. She made several troubling logical leaps and factual errors symptomatic of certain unhealthy assumptions oft made by some on the political right.

Full disclosure: I am a public school teacher. I was and remain in the Never Trump camp as he has made very few decisions and promises I used to classify as conservative. His nomination and the defense of him by many self-described conservatives has made me realize much of conservatism has, like the Democrats to Ronald Reagan, left me. Robbins and I agree that local control of education, from the purse strings to the curricula, is ideal.

Let’s Talk about the Meaning of Competency

Robbins asks, as her “preliminary but obvious question” regarding CBE, “Is ‘competency’ what we’re shooting for in education? How many parents, if asked what they want from their child’s schooling, would answer, ‘We want him to be competent’? So this is the first problem with CBE: it aims not for excellent, but for good enough.” She thus begins by inciting a flyting between competence and excellence.

Competence is no small matter. According to Merriam-Webster, it is “having requisite or adequate ability or qualities.” Robbins calls this “good enough.” The key word here, in the dictionary version, is “requisite.” This word indicates the existence of a minimum standard. In secondary education, you are to be graduated when you can do at least this.

This is the very premise of certification. Having a medical license does not certify one as a good or bad doctor, but rather states that, at the minimum, its bearer has the knowledge and skill of a doctor. Robbins claims it is problematic that CBE “aims not for excellent, but for good enough,” yet do we think that all students of math should be held to the standard of Isaac Newton? Should the Advanced Placement exam be the benchmark for all kids moving through our schools?

Good Enough Is Indeed Good Enough

Robbins, whom I take from her formidable résumé to be a solid conservative with whom I’d agree on much, has, inadvertently I’m sure, challenged the very idea that there ought to be standards against which students are assessed. In education, as everywhere, there needs to be a standard, a “good enough.” Such a standard need not, and never will, preclude the “excellent.”

Frankly, good enough is good enough. One ought to expect a certain competence in math, even of those who will not become mathematicians. A certain knowledge of history ought to be known by those who will not be historians. A minimum level of grammar and usage should be known by all we would call high school-educated. I would bet that Robbins and I would agree on these standards, at least conceptually.

To say that excellence is not a target of an educational system that accepts competence is to demand excellence only: either greatness or serfdom. Honestly, competence, adequacy, and good enough ought to be satisfying enough goals for most students in most subject areas. If there is a problem in American education, it is what level of academic performance we call competent or the areas in which we require competence, not the concept of competency itself.

There appears to be confusion between “competence” (as above) and the idea of “competency.” There is a misunderstanding of what a competency looks like in CBE. A competency is the thing you are expected to be able to do; it is the standard against which you are assessed. In my field, English, a competency might have to do with reading a text and correctly describing its mood, tone, or theme, for example. These can be easily and fairly assessed.

A competency is not “Students will read ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and understand it.” They should (it’s a wonderful play), but that statement is not what CBE would consider a competency. This fundamental misunderstanding leads Robbins to the conclusion that “CBE is useless in academic disciplines that don’t lend themselves to digitally measurable outcomes.”

Get the Details Right on Common Core

In her particulars, Robbins is on even shakier ground: “But how could it work in studying, say, British literature? Common Core, which proponents have lauded as a perfect fit with CBE, solves this problem by dispensing with British literature. I am no defender of the Common Core, but there are a number of problems here.

The claim that British literature has been dispensed with would shock and anger my students who just took an exam on “Macbeth.” At the eleventh and twelfth grade level the standards do prescribe a knowledge of American literature through the early twentieth century, but this is the only area of literature so specifically endorsed.

It is true that “British literature” does not appear as such in the standards. But William Shakespeare is used as an example. His work is specifically prescribed at least twice. Beyond that, nothing in the standards would discourage the teaching of British literature, either in a dedicated course or as a part of general study.

Most curious about the alleged removal of British literature is the link associated with it in Robbins’ article, which leads to an appendix to the Common Core Standards. Why is this odd? The text exemplars, you see, include Shakespeare (three times), John Donne (twice), Mary Shelley, A.E. Houseman, W.H. Auden, Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, G.K. Chesterton, Winston Churchill, and George Orwell. I haven’t even included the Irishmen who were British at the time (that’d be Oscar Wilde and W.B. Yeats, if you must know). How the inclusion of these writers as ideal examples of literature to be taught can be construed as an abandonment of British literature is beyond me.

She goes on from there to a conspiracy of indoctrination and borderline mind control, but let’s be honest: in a house with so rickety a foundation, it’s not worth your time to critique the walk-in closet in the master bedroom.

What Robbins does well—and I’m being genuine here—is focus on the student, the classroom, and the teacher, which is relatively rare on the political right. Too many conservatives use the words “public school” as a bogeyman, like the Left does with “corporations” or “the wealthy.” I believe school choice is the answer to America’s education problems in the long term, but not in the short. Even if school choice were obtained in every town and state tomorrow, who will staff these choice schools?

It is the Left that develops most educational and pedagogical theory, and it is universities that produce most teachers. That does not mean every public school teacher and administrator is a dialed-in leftist. They’re not, which means that there are plenty of minds receptive to conservative thinking on education. Conservatives like Robbins need to get engaged on the particulars of education theory. We need this kind of debate and involvement in the particulars, lest we risk losing the universal.