What's Behind the Gates Foundation's Push for Competency-Based Learning?

In vogue currently among name-brand higher education funders like Gates, Lumina, and Kresge is the notion of competency-based learning. Here, I'll focus primarily on how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation approaches the idea and throws money at it. (See Gates Foundation: Grants for Higher Education.) But administrators and researchers friendly to competency-based learning also can seek support from these other foundations and the government as well. The idea happens to align quite harmoniously with all the latest Obamaism.

Competency-based learning refers to curricula that operate according to a specific belief: The relationship between hours spent in class and the amount a person learns is correlational, not causational. It's the belief that spending X amount of hours sitting in the back of chemistry class with a fly buzzing in your ear and out your mouth is different from knowing chemistry. And the ways in which these things differ are important. A frequently repeated corollary to the argument is that "all students learn differently," and that good test-takers are not always already more generally smart or proficient people.

To follow the logic further, that same fly-through-the-ear student shouldn't be allowed to squeak through with a C- just for showing up all semester. A competency-based curriculum might instead sit such students in front of a chemistry set and pass-fail them based on whether or not they can make the pink water in the beaker turn blue without alerting FEMA.

Utah and Texas seem to be the primary geographical hub for a lot of direct support from Gates to schools with competency-based curricula. (Read Director of Education Daniel Greenstein's IP profile.)

Utah-based Western Governors University (WGU) is the biggest, easiest example. Not only does Gates provide the school with tens of millions of dollars in general operating support, but it also funds scholarships through Teacher Leadership Program and the like to put students through WGU. As of 2011, Mark Milliron, former deputy director of postsecondary education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has served as chancellor of WGU's Texas location.

Gates bucks more recently produced a new Bachelor of Applied Sciences in Organizational Leadership. It's a collaborative effort between Texas A&M University and South Texas College that expects to enroll 6,000 students over the next seven years.

Gates and its crew have also plastered K Street with money to commission research and journalism about why competency-based learning is so important. See, for example, "Cracking the Credit Hour," a Gates-funded report from the New America Foundation; New America has received millions of dollars from Gates over the past few years. You could also look at virtually anything ever published by Educause.

Critics dismiss the output of these efforts as so much financially greased punditry that will inevitably celebrate the virtue of competency-based learning. The other problem is that regardless of how critical of competency-based learning a researcher may be, most in the field do not feel comfortable permanently ruling out the possibility of receiving money from these foundations in the future. They are, as a result, unlikely to pipe in with contrary arguments.