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School board learns about competency-based education practices in district

By Carl Blankenship
carl.blaneknship@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY – The Rowan-Salisbury School Board on Monday looked to gather more information on how a popular new approach to education in recent years can help reach every student.

In a traditional elementary school, there are six grades — Kindergarten through fifth — and the content in all subject areas is set for each grade. That means everyone in second grade learns the same material. Competency-based education dismantles the traditional grade-level system and, instead, assigns students levels in different subjects based on their mastery of material.

A student could be a level five in reading but a level three in math, or vise versa. In the context of competency-based education, students are taught based on what level they are at rather than where the content of a class is.

Morgan Elementary Principal Derek DiStefano is making the new learning model part of the renewal plan at his school, and he was one of the people leading discussion at one of three tables the school board visited during its Monday night work session.

DiStefano described what giving a student a zero on an assignment accomplishes. A zero gives a student “an out,” he said.

The student did not attempt the material, they may have not learned anything and the zero has no immediate consequences attached, he said. A zero also represents an easy way for teachers to write off struggling students without addressing their issues, he said.

DiStefano said there is no way to come back from a zero. A zero on a major assignment can massively affect a student’s grade and cause that student to give up completely.

A zero also does not mean the student does not know anything. It usually means they did not attempt an assignment, and that does not describe mastery of the material being taught.

DiStefano also pointed out the advantages for students who have mastered a piece of material quickly: rather than being assigned graded, repetitive work as their classmates catch up, those students can continue to the next lesson while the teacher spends more time supporting anyone who is not moving as quickly. Competency-based education would allow students to progress through levels in different subjects, rather than grades.

A student could be at a level No. 2 in one area and be No. 4 the next year.

“We may open a year at some of our struggling schools, with what they currently have, three level one math classes, when they open under a competency-based system they now have six,” DiStefano said. “Teachers that were teaching third and fourth grade are now teaching level one math content, because that’s where the needs of their students are at the time.”

Board member Travis Allen asked how competency-based education would affect a teacher if there were students at different levels in one classroom. But DiStefano said the end goal for competency-based education is that grade-level teaching would go away. Instead, teachers would have classrooms with students at the same level for a particular subject they were teaching.

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