Competency-Based Teacher Education Is the Future

To the Editor:

Who would have thought the terms “competency” and “mastery” would elicit the sort of reactions they do in higher education? To some, the word competency is a threat to education itself, a way to trivialize the learning that occurs in our colleges and universities. To others, it is the salvation many thought would never come.

Competency is the future of higher education, as we collectively focus on what students know and can do. And I can understand Mr. Cassuto’s (“How Do You Measure a Good Teacher, Anyway?” The Chronicle, October 25) fears that competency is a threat to existing teacher-education programs and the credentials they have historically awarded. However, if ed schools were able to certify the effectiveness of their graduates, this would only serve to enhance their stature and the degrees they award.

Neither a credential nor a certain number of credit hours is an effective measure of whether a beginning teacher possesses the knowledge and abilities to succeed in a K–12 classroom. Effective educator preparation is not “training” either watch repairmen or horses, as Mr. Cassuto notes. Through decades of research, we do know the skills, knowledge, and abilities necessary to be a classroom teacher. We know what is required in terms of academic preparation and content knowledge. We know what is necessary in terms of pedagogy and clinical experience.

And we know what is demanded in terms of ongoing support and coaching.

As for competency-based education, it is not new. American colleges and universities have had such programs for more than five decades. Competency is not a code word for online education. Bricks and mortar, online, and blended education are all methods of delivery. All play their role in higher education now, and will continue to do so in competency-based higher education. For our planned program, the Woodrow Wilson Academy will employ face-to-face along with online instruction.

Competency-based education, at its heart, is about how learning is assessed. Rather than assuming that 36 credit hours or 12 courses makes a good beginning teacher, a true CBE model recognizes that students learn and demonstrate learning at different paces and in different ways. It is the most effective way of demonstrating true mastery of skills and knowledge — mastery that is desperately needed in the classroom.

The Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning, in collaboration with MIT, intends to enroll its first class in 2017. For more than a year, we have been working with Charlotte Danielson and content experts, including teachers, to develop the competencies a secondary-level STEM teacher will need to demonstrate. Throughout 2016, we will provide regular progress reports on the WW Academy’s progress, from ongoing work on the competencies to efforts to develop curricula and assessments, to be shared with the education community.

Mr. Cassuto is correct that “teaching is a people-centered profession.” We look to K–12 teachers to individualize instruction and teach to the specific student. We should expect no less from teacher preparation. The industrialized teacher prep approach of the 1950s simply doesn’t hold today. As our economy, and our society, have evolved, so too must our education schools. For the sake of the profession, we must focus on the prospective educator, and the knowledge, skills, and abilities he or she must demonstrate on that first day on the job.

Competency-based teacher preparation is our best chance of achieving that.

Arthur E. Levine
President, Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation
Princeton, N.J.

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