One district’s drive to teach competencies means eliminating age-based classrooms.
by CHRIS BERDIK for the Hechinger Report, July 30, 2018
On windswept fields outside Fargo, North Dakota, a bold experiment in education has begun. In a lone building flanked by farmland, the Northern Cass School District is heading into year two of a three-year journey to abolish grade levels. By the fall of 2020, all Northern Cass students will plot their own academic courses to high school graduation, while sticking with same-age peers for things like gym class and field trips.
The goal is to stop tethering teaching to “seat time” — where students are grouped by age and taught at a uniform, semester pace — and instead adopt competency-based education, in which students progress through skills and concepts by demonstrating proficiency.
That alone isn’t unusual; a majority of states now allow competency-based pilot programs, and many schools have fully implemented the approach. What makes Northern Cass notable is that very few mainstream schools, let alone districts, have set out to topple grade levels.
But as the movement against seat-time learning grows, more schools nationwide will be grappling with grade levels, deciding whether to keep them or to hack through thickets of political, logistical and cultural barriers to uproot them.
Some school leaders insist that competency-based education can survive and even thrive within grade levels, or a modified version of them. Others, however, echo Northern Cass superintendent, Cory Steiner.
“We can’t keep structures that would allow us to fall back into a more traditional system,” said Steiner. “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to have to manage without grade levels.”
This story about competency-based education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.