Education Week recently profiled the district and its challenges with implementing this type of competency based approach (subscription required).
But four years into the effort, Adams 50's work shows how hard instituting such changes can be, even with broad support.
For example, the district divided its curriculum into 10 academic levels, expanded those to 14 levels when 10 were deemed too broad, and then has had to tweak the levels again when the state adopted new literacy and mathematics standards.
The initiative also continues to be challenged by state testing requirements, which force Adams 50 to group students by grade, even though those students may not have been working on the particular academic areas that the tests cover.
And incorporating the approach into the district's two high schools has been bumpy. The competency-based model is currently being used in the 9th and 10th grades in those schools, but Adams 50 is working through what level-based learning means for grade point averages and class ranks.
Even the most experienced teachers have been left feeling like first-year educators in the wake of the changes, district leaders say they have heard.
Adams might be one of the first districts to take this on, but many states are also considering a change to the way they look at credit.
While Adams 50 has gotten attention for its efforts, competency-based learning has a foothold in 36 states, according to a 2012 issue brief from the National Governors Association. That means those states "provide school districts and schools with some flexibility for awarding credit to students based on mastery of content and skills as opposed to seat time," the NGA brief said.
It went on to note, though, that a common challenge for many such efforts is that other education structures within the state may work against that flexibility. For example, student-level data may be housed in systems that prevent teachers from getting all the information they need to evaluate if a student has fully mastered the academic content.
States also vary in how much they encourage districts to take advantage of such flexibility. New Hampshire is a leader in that area: It is the only state that is requiring its high schools to do away with Carnegie units, which award academic credit based on seat time, and instead award credit based on mastery of course-level competencies.
Connecticut offers districts the ability to separate seat time from credits, but recently, a coalition of district superintendents said it would like to see the state embrace even more widespread change. Every school leader in the state signed on to a proposal that, among other changes, would require that students advance to the next level on the basis of content mastery and would offer year-round learning opportunities.
In the coming age of "anytime, anywhere" learning coupled with standards-based reform, it would seem to make sense to take a renewed (and long overdue) look at how we recognize learning. Seat time is no guarantee of learning. Neither is the number of days in a school year. Efforts to lengthen school days/years might move forward under the veil of increased opportunity, but they are still "one size fits all" models when it comes to mastering skills and content.
Systemic change like this is just about impossible, but I am impressed with these states and districts which are making an effort to move forward. Euphemisms about building the plane during flight aside, the simple truth is that we are never going to have all the answers we need at the time we need them. Sometimes, you just have to jump and trust that you can figure out what to do when you land.