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Legislative Update: Competency Based Learning Highlighted at Recent Senate HELP Committee Hearing

Capitol

Yesterday the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension (HELP) Committee held the second of twelve scheduled hearings on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA).  The hearing, titled “Attaining a Quality Degree: Innovations to Improve Student Success,” examined innovative practices in higher education which according to Chairman Harkin (D-IA), “are increasing student learning, engagement and degree completion.” Witnesses at the hearing spoke about a great variety of innovations and offered insight for how to improve higher education. However, one practice in particular— competency-based learning— emerged from the hearing as a clear favorite among those providing testimony.

Competency based education (CBE), according to the President and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, “is a student-centered, learning-outcome-based model. Where you get the education is secondary to what you know and are able to do.” This idea— to prioritize mastery of skills and knowledge over time spent in class— was a continual theme throughout the hearing. Dr. R. Scott Ralls, President of the North Carolina Community College System, testified that through this model their students, “are better able to attain meaningful industry certifications as well as traditional academic credentials, built on top of a foundational core of academic, workplace, and technical competencies.” These remarks and others have promising implications for Career Technical Education (CTE) and the broader college- and career-ready agenda as competency-based education can help remove barriers between CTE and core academic courses, and support more innovation in the classroom.

An archived webcast of the hearing, along with witness testimony, can be found here.

Secretary Duncan Unveils Timeline for a College Ratings System

Renewed energy and focus on innovative practices in higher education has largely been spurred by the Obama Administration’s call to make college more affordable. As we shared previously, college tuition and fees have increased by a staggering 538% since 1985 and the administration has made it a priority to combat these rising costs. Towards the end, the President proposed over the summer to link federal financial aid to school performance based on a national college ratings system. Factors such as average tuition, loan debt, graduation rates, and employment outcomes are all being considered to create a college or university’s rating. The administration has planned a series of hearings on college campuses across the country to gather input for the new system.

On Wednesday Arne Duncan, U.S. Department of Education Secretary, announced a proposed timeline for the creation and roll-out of this ratings system. A “technical symposium” is expected early next year where the rating methodology will be discussed. After this an initial version will be released sometime next spring which will be open for public comment.  Please check our blog for more updates as this process unfolds.

Budget Conference Committee Convenes

Also on Wednesday, the Budget Conference Committee convened for the first time, starting negotiations between both parties over the budget and other fiscal issues such as tax and entitlement reform. The conference committee— created as part of the agreement that ended the most recent government shutdown and raised the debt ceiling— is tasked with reconciling the House and Senate budget proposals which fund the federal government at $967 billion and $1.058 trillion respectively. More information on this committee can be found here. As we shared last week, this is an important opportunity for Congress to reverse or reduce the harmful cuts to the federal budget mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA). These cuts, known as sequestration, have had a negative impact on education programs throughout the country and it is critical that the CTE community engage their members of Congress throughout these negotiations.

Although the process has only just begun, the committee must finalize a compromise by December 13th. This gives the appropriations committees in both chambers very little time to craft the necessary 12 appropriations bills needed to fund the federal government before the current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires on January 15th. In a rare joint letter, Senate Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and House Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY), have urged the committee to come to an agreement no later than Thanksgiving. According to the letter an early agreement would allow for, “more thoughtful and responsible spending decisions, set the parameters for the budgetary savings that need to be reached in your Budget conference, and build momentum for a larger budget agreement that addresses the nation’s wide range of fiscal challenges.” The full letter can be found here.

Please check our blog for updates as this process continues to develop.

Steve Voytek, Government Relations Associate 

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