The LYNX program starts at Frederick High School in a few weeks, but based on the Board of Education’s most recent discussion and research into similar initiatives, it is difficult to see how it will be successful in improving academics. According to the latest state PARCC exam, Frederick High has a 76.1 percent failure rate in Algebra I, a 62.2 percent failure rate in Algebra II, a 59 percent failure rate in 10th-grade English, and a 69 percent failure rate in 11th-grade English.
Against that disheartening backdrop, FCPS has planned to “reinvent” and “transform” the Frederick High School experience through more emphasis on internships, self-advocacy, apprenticeships, project-based learning and personalized education. Students can now demonstrate abilities through portfolios, skill performances and participating in experiences for “experiential credit.” Students will demonstrate “competencies” as opposed to acquiring a certain number of course credits. FCPS plans to do this despite not getting the $10 million grant it had sought to fund implementation.
One of the main premises of LYNX — that students should get course credit if they already know the material instead of having to sit through the course — is quite reasonable. But the idea that we should do away with “carnegie units” and replace them with a list of competencies seems largely a difference in semantics. Students currently must pass the Algebra I course to graduate. What is the difference if we say students must learn the “competencies” in Algebra I instead of requiring students to pass the course with a B or above? Is there any practical difference between having students retake a shortened version of Algebra I or get tutoring and what LYNX calls “multiple pathways” for learning the material?
Even if one believes that “competency-based education” offers more than different terminology, it’s doubtful that it will improve learning. The U.S. Department of Education’s review released this January shows most studies don’t attempt to compare the academic results of demographically similar students to see if this approach works better than others. As usually happens in education, the evaluation plan of FCPS does not include such a comparison, either.
FCPS cited New Hampshire’s decade of experience in implementing competency-based education as evidence that it works, and said there was a “suite of best practices” LYNX would implement. But when Board of Education members Liz Barrett, Colleen Cusimano and April Miller asked about New Hampshire and those best practices at the June 28 board meeting, FCPS staff provided little detail and described LYNX as a “journey” to figure out its implementation. “If New Hampshire’s example is any indicator,” Julia Fisher wrote in Education Next, “the road to competency-based education will be long and winding.”
FCPS hasn’t yet figured out how student transcripts will look and whether the new ones will be a disadvantage for college admissions. Since LYNX asks students to achieve competencies as opposed to credits, shouldn’t the competency-based report cards that define these goals already be in place?
With greater emphasis on job-related activities and experiences as opposed to passing written exams, you have to wonder if FCPS is resigned to accept that most of Frederick High’s students are going become “career-ready” instead of “college-ready.” Whether career- or college-bound, it is unclear how more emphasis on outside experiences helps students learn math and English.
How will students who haven’t mastered basic reading and math benefit from more project-based and independent learning that require these skills to be in place? For all the talk about LYNX achieving “equity,” wouldn’t it serve the cause of equality more to develop an academically focused plan that fills the knowledge and skill gaps of minority and low-income students who fail their exams at even higher rates than those cited above? Is it ethical to try out an unproven approach on struggling students with no option for them to choose more proven approaches?
The LYNX planning documents did not include an analysis of which topics in math and English were causing students’ difficulty, which is a necessary starting point for any school improvement effort, especially a competency-based one. Perhaps instead of aspiring to reinvent the entire high school experience, FCPS should start with the more modest but challenging task of getting most Frederick High students to learn enough to pass their math and English exams.
Liz Barrett summed up the situation very well when she called staff’s answers about LYNX “fluffy.” Despite good intentions, LYNX lacks funding and a strong research base, and has too many loose ends. It seems unlikely that it will improve academics at Frederick High, which most students there really need.