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Next Steps: Competency-based learning incentives


As elected officials vacate Jefferson City and return to their families and jobs, The Missouri Times is bringing you updates on initiatives that didn’t quite make it through this year’s shortened session. The “Next Steps” series will showcase progress made on certain legislative issues and take a look ahead at what could come next.

After a school year complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers and students are looking ahead to a very different educational landscape. 

As schools explore remote learning options and blended schedules promoting social distancing, more flexible approaches to education are becoming the norm despite school funding in Missouri being largely determined by in-seat attendance. One of the bills that failed to pass the finish line during this year’s abbreviated session would change that.

SB 582, sponsored by Sen. Lauren Arthur, would create incentives for schools in Missouri to explore competency-based learning. Arthur said that the current funding system penalizes schools for taking a more flexible approach.

“The way our system is set up currently, everything is measured by credits and seat time, so schools that want to have a more innovative approach sometimes get punished by not receiving all the funding they need,” Arthur told The Missouri Times. “My bill would eliminate that punishment and hopefully encourage schools to try this kind of approach.”

Competency-based learning is an approach to education that assesses students on demonstrations of what they have learned and their proficiency in subjects based on state learning standards, as opposed to putting a strong emphasis on time in the classroom or attendance hours. This allows for more flexibility in learning and lets teachers make more personalized decisions on educating students, according to Arthur.

“The basic idea is, if you’re teaching a skill or a standard, a student doesn’t take a test and just pass or fail and move on; it allows a student who needs to practice and show that they know that material to do it at their rate,” she said.

She noted that competency-based learning allows students to move on once they grasp a concept or receive additional instruction until they do, rather than making students learn at the same pace.

Currently, school funding in Missouri is determined by the Foundation Formula, which is heavily influenced by in-seat attendance numbers and student performance. The formula looks at high-performing districts and uses their data to calculate funding for districts across the state. The weighted average daily attendance of a district is one of four major factors that the Foundation Formula deals with.

Arthur’s bill would grant schools providing competency-based courses the same state funding received for normal courses. The attendance of a student would be calculated by a similar formula, taking the school’s average attendance of the previous year and multiplying it by the number of hours typically given to a standard course of the same credit value.

Arthur, who has worked as a middle school teacher and holds a Master’s degree in education, said the idea to incentivize this alternative form of learning came from working with other educators.

“One of the superintendents I’ve worked with mentioned that this was an issue they encountered, so we worked on a way to address that problem. It’s gained a lot of support from other legislators, and I think we just need the opportunity to take it across the finish line.”

Arthur said the bill passed through committee unanimously this year. The last action on the bill was a public hearing in late April. 

Arthur said she plans to support the bill again during the next legislative session. 

“We plan on filing the bill or a similar version of it in December,” she said. “There might be interest in the House to file similar legislation on that side, and we’re also looking at ideas to push the legislation a little further. Then it’s just a matter of working it through the process.”

Arthur said that the complications that came with educating students during the COVID-19 pandemic made the legislation even more important.

“It’s entirely appropriate in response to the pandemic and some of the virtual learning issues we’re heard about,” she said. “It allows students to be assessed by what skills they know, and it helps both students who need remediation and those who excel. It allows students to learn at their own pace, while also making sure students keep learning even if they aren’t in the classroom. It’s a much more flexible approach.” 

Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) approved a rule change to allow schools to count remote attendance during the 2021 school year and waived programs encouraging high attendance earlier this week.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For up-to-date information on coronavirus, check with the CDC and DHSS.