Public Agenda
Public Agenda Alert -- March 20, 2013
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Competency-Based Education
Teacher Voice & Effectiveness
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Improving the Conversation on 

Competency-Based Education 

The U.S. Department of Education this week announced that colleges can seek federal approval for degree programs that measure and recognize student learning independent of time spent in class. The move affirms the position of competency-based education as one of the key innovations underway in higher education right now. Public Agenda is helping structure productive, unprecedented conversations about the issue with accreditors, state regulators, Education Department officials and colleges.


Competency-based education refers to a system where a student can make progress toward a degree or even be granted a degree based on his or her demonstration of learning rather than on the number of credits accumulated or classes taken.  


The conversation around competency-based education is a sensitive one, for many reasons. Many argue that the current system for measuring and rewarding student learning, based on the credit hour, is deeply flawed because it uses time to stand-in for learning. The challenges that students face as they seek to transfer credits from one school to another indicates that higher education institutions themselves do not see the credit hour as an accurate indication of learning. Students end up wasting time and money, opponents say, and the current system is putting our workforce and economy at risk.


But moving to competency-based education, if widespread, would undoubtedly alter the landscape of higher education and lead to a good deal of change and upheaval. Many are concerned about the possible fraud and misuse of taxpayer dollars that might come with such a move, especially as federal financial aid becomes available to competency-based programs. Others are worried that degrees will cease to mean anything if they can simply be granted based on prior learning or experience. They fear this could lead to an erosion of quality.


Even among supporters of competency-based education, large and difficult questions loom about how to design and responsibly implement a system for measuring learning directly. Finding ways to encourage innovations in competency-based education, while protecting taxpayer dollars and the integrity of degrees, is complicated work.


Responsible innovation around competency-based education will require new kinds of conversations among institutions, accreditors, state regulators and the Department of Education. With support from Lumina Foundation, Public Agenda is working to help structure and facilitate these unprecedented conversations.


Currently, we are participating in the design of an upcoming meeting of accreditors, state regulators, Education Department officials and innovative colleges at the Department of Education in April. We're also designing nonpartisan discussion materials for this meeting that will help participants examine multiple approaches to the issue, from a variety of perspectives, and the tradeoffs inherent in any approach.   


Our hope is that these meetings will lead to thoughtful, productive dialogue and consideration, even among participants with different responsibilities and perspectives.  Ultimately, we hope they help participants collaborate effectively on a workable approach to this promising, if complex, development in higher education.


We'll keep you informed about our work on this important issue. In the meantime, please check out the other work we're doing to help improve higher education for our nation's students.

Engaging Teachers in the Big Questions 

Around Teacher Effectiveness

This past weekend, Public Agenda's Allison Rizzolo traveled to Chicago to talk to educators and school and district leaders about now they can engage teachers in the hard questions around evaluation reform. She joined Ellen Sherratt of American Institutes for Research, Public Agenda's partner in the Everyone at the Table project and one of Allison's coauthors on the forthcoming book Everyone at the Table: Engaging Teachers in Evaluation Reform.


About 70 people joined Allison and Ellen's session at this year's ASCD conference. Attendees included teachers, principals and assistant principals, superintendents, curriculum coordinators, and school improvement facilitators.


During the session, participants collaborated to brainstorm how they could implement a more robust system for teacher engagement in their own context, as well as the barriers and challenges that may stand in the way.


The majority of participants agreed that their evaluation systems would have been strengthened if the input of area teachers had been more thoughtfully included during the process. We were also happy to hear a few members of the audience ask how they can continue to engage their teachers around evaluation reform, even after the evaluation system is in place.


Everyone at the Table is a package of free resources to spur productive dialogue on the topic of teacher evaluation. It includes moderator training tips, planning documents, a nonpartisan discussion guide, and documents and advice for following up with education leaders and integrating teacher feedback into reform.


The forthcoming book will also include resources for engaging principals in teacher and principal evaluation, guidance for engaging teachers when evaluation redesign is already underway, tips for engaging teachers on other critical education reform issues, and advice for extending the conversation outside of the school in order to engage parents and the community.


Everyone at the Table: Engaging Teachers in Evaluation Reform is currently available for pre-order. In the meantime, please check out and use the free resources available on the Everyone at the Table website.


Engaging teachers, or any stakeholder, in productive conversation on a sensitive topic can be hard, we know, but it's possible and it's worth it. Have you been involved in a teacher engagement initiative or used the Everyone at the Table materials? Please contact us to share your story.

By publicizing the work you've done and the outcomes you've achieved, we can convince more and more people to join the teacher voice movement.

Engaging Ideas

Does the dichotomous nature of our culture and society make compromise impossible?   


"After fomenting hatred in your supporters, splitting complex reality into simple black and white, how can you possibly ask them to think?"

- on the emotional psychology of the Other, from the Atlantic


City vs. Urban, Us vs. Them and Republican vs. DemocratThese thoughts and a call to eliminate oppositional thinking, from the CEOs for Cities blog



Can grit, drive and social intelligence be measures for success? How can these noncognitive skills be assessed?  Read up on the burgeoning topic which has colleges and employers reconsidering what they look for in their potential students and employees.  



"When asked whether hiring a school counselor or a police officer would be more effective at preventing violence, voters in CA chose counselors by a margin of more than two to one."

- survey on school violence prevention, from The California Endowment


The recommended ratio of students to counselors is 250 to 1 , but the national average is nearly double that, at 471 to 1. See more on other issues of the overstretched guidance system here.




Last week, California introduced legislation to let students get credit for online classes that are the equivalent of overcrowded traditional courses with a bill proposed by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. 


"Fewer than half of presidents (41%) say that they are 'very effective' at using data to aid and inform campus-decision making."

 - from Inside Higher Ed's survey of college presidents  


Here's how to build institutional capacity for data-informed decision making.


A recent survey from The Atlantic Cities brings the social context of life, and of the overall health of communities in particular, into the conversation on health policy.




Democratic Futures held their digital media learning conference (DML 2013) last weekend in Chicago. Have a look back at the keynote address on the new meaning of civic education and engagement


More than 8 in 10 voters nationwide say the federal government is broken and needs basic overhaul.


About Us
Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate complex, divisive issues. Through nonpartisan research and engagement, it provides people with the insights and support they need to arrive at workable solutions on critical issues, regardless of their differences. Since 1975, Public Agenda has helped foster progress on K-12 and higher education reform, health care, federal and local budgets, energy and immigration. Find Public Agenda online at

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