Flexibility in funding, accountability and assessment are necessary for implementing competency-based education (CBE) systems in K-12, leaders of two districts told state lawmakers Monday during a session at the National Conference of State Legislatures' (NCSL) annual summit in Los Angeles.
"It’s about students demonstrating mastery of standards," said Rick Robins, superintendent of the Juab School District, in a rural area of Utah, which began moving to a CBE model about five years ago. "Our traditional model of one-size-fits-all I firmly believe we should eliminate."
CBE has created a more equitable learning experience for students, he said, and the overall graduation rate has increased from 80% to almost 97%. While math scores have increased since CBE began, the district has not yet seen growth in English language arts (ELA).
Communicating with parents, he added, is a major element to having success with a CBE or mastery-based model and can really shine the light on what students are learning. But support from state lawmakers is also necessary.
"This is really a statewide movement," he said. "You need leadership at all levels to really have this conversation."
Utah Senator Ann Millner said that while it's important to give innovative districts like Juab the flexibility they need, it's also important to create pilot projects and grants to encourage other districts to move toward CBE. One concern from district leaders about CBE, she said, was that they would lose state funding if students graduated early. Lawmakers, she said, tweaked the finance system so districts would not be penalized if students graduate early and can use those funds for those students who might need more time to meet standards, adding that most finance systems are currently designed around a "seat time" model.
"I think we have to figure our how to make our funding formulas more flexible," she said.
Superintendent Pamela Swanson of Westminster Public Schools (Colo.) said that her district needs flexibility to count students in more than one grade level at a time, because a 3rd-grader, for example, might be working on 5th-grade math, but still be in 3rd or lower in ELA. Testing systems must also adapt, she said.
"We need assessment on demand," Swanson said.
Larry Dean Valente, a member of the Westminster Public Schools Board of Education, said there are also too many tests and state mandates that impede districts' ability to implement CBE. "Every time we turn around, there is a new mandate, a new test," he said. "Let us have back our local control."
ESSA gave states 'back the reins' on education
School safety and finance are among the biggest education concerns for state lawmakers this year, the members of an NCSL education policy working group said during a noon meeting. The group of 30 legislators and 10 staff members works to inform the larger NCSL education committee, which adopts position statements on key education topics.
As part of a brief update on federal policy affecting the states, Joan Wodiska, a senior federal affairs counsel with NCSL, asked the participants what they most wanted to learn more about, with early-childhood education and STEM being their top answers. Programs for young children were also among the topics mentioned when she asked what accomplishments legislators most wanted to brag about.
These included New Mexico’s K-3 Plus, which gives children at risk of falling behind in the early grades an additional 25 instructional days during the summer, and the recent reauthorization of South Carolina’s First Steps program, which provides a range of services for young children including early intervention, child care and parenting support.
“One of the things we continually hear from state legislators is that you value the opportunity to learn from each other,” Wodiska told the participants, many of whom also serve on education committees in their states. “You are part of a very special club. You understand the pressure of balancing public office with all the other demands on your life.”
She said that while Congress just reauthorized the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, she expects legislation related to Head Start and special education to be on the horizon soon. Her comments on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) also drew a few cheers.
“The passage of ESSA," she said. "gave you back the reins on education in your state."
Tax law change on 529 plans could impact state finances
In a separate session, Wodiska brought legislators up to date on the potential impact of the revision in the federal tax law that allows families to withdraw money from their 529 plans for private K-12. The funds were originally intended to help families save for college.
With 529 plans, states, she said, are managing roughly $277 billion in assets. "It's not a sleepy little marketplace," she said.
The change in the law could impact states by adding to administrative costs and reducing revenues because of tax deductions. Wall Street, she said, is watching how states are managing these funds and is particularly interested in whether fund managers are highly experienced and whether the funds are insulated against political swings.
"This is an opportunity for you to evaluate how the program is functioning and who is managing the funds," she said, adding that while states currently have little information on how many parents will take advantage of the new allowable expenses, in six months, the picture may be clearer.