Does competency-based professional development have legs?

By Meg S. Bates

There’s a lot of chatter in teacher education circles about competency-based professional development (PD). The idea is that traditional PD has a “one size fits all” approach: Teachers in a school get the same instruction about the same topic, regardless of personal interest, need, or experience. Competency-based PD, on the other hand, allows teachers to attain a level of competency in a particular area of interest or need. Teachers work at their own pace, drawing on their past experience and knowledge, towards a certifiable competency.

I have heard four common arguments for this PD.

(1) It will support implementation of common standards. With the Common Core State Standards driving policy and practice in many states, teachers may be seeking competencies in the content, pedagogy, and schoolwide planning required to implement these standards.

(2) It will help teachers succeed in the new evaluation climate. Many states are adopting teacher evaluations and pay structures tied to student test-score data rather than years of experience, degrees, and classroom observations. Teachers may be seeking competencies they believe will help them improve student learning.

(3) It adopts best teaching practices for teachers. We know from educational research that students learn best when teaching builds on prior knowledge and differentiates by need and interest. Theoretically, competency-based PD embraces these good practices, while traditional PD does not.

(4) Technology makes it more possible. As my colleagues and I discussed in a February 2016 Kappan article, technology now allows PD that can operate outside school constraints and be customized to individual teacher needs and wants.

Some of these arguments are more compelling than others. I’m personally drawn to the argument that teachers should be treated to the same best pedagogical practices we expect for students. But I’ve long been curious whether the promise of competency-based PD outweighs the challenges to implementing it. I’m also confused whether we really want competency-based PD or just more effective, sustained, job-embedded PD like instructional coaching, lesson study, and the like.

I think several questions need to be answered for competency-based PD to work. The answers to these questions should be negotiated by educators, schools, and PD providers. They include:

  • What kinds of competencies do teachers need and want to have?
  • How will gaining these competencies be reliably measured and certified?
  • How will certifications of these competences fit into traditional professional advancement structures (including teacher pay and job duties)?
  • How will these individually earned competencies be leveraged for schoolwide improvement?
  • How will schools integrate such nontraditional PD structures into the school year and day?
  • Who will pay for this PD?
  • As all learning is social, how will schools ensure that this kind of learning doesn’t become too isolated?

I’d like to hear from educators about these issues. Are you interested in competency-based PD? What are your questions? What solutions do you see for the questions I posed above?

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