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A New—and More Effective—Way to Assess Teachers’ Competency

by Tom Hanlon / Feb 13, 2023

Nancy Latham is coauthor of a new book that makes the credentialing system for teachers both simpler and more trustworthy for those hiring them. As a bonus, it can be used in other industries as well.

Writing a book has been likened to running a marathon. In Nancy Latham’s case, it was more like an ultramarathon.

“Our book has been ten years or more in the making. There’s nothing more time consuming than writing a book!” she jokes.

Latham, executive director of the Council on Teacher Education and associate dean in the College of Education, is lead author of Using a Competency Development Process Model in Higher Education: A Practical Guide. The book, which guides readers in unsnarling and simplifying the teacher credentialing process—and can be used in other industries as well—is due out in late April 2023. Latham and her coauthors—Johnna Darragh Ernst (early childhood professor at Heartland Community College in Normal, Illinois), Tiffany Freeze (chief assessment officer at The QuILTSS Institute and a consultant for the Competency-Based Network), Stephanie Bernoteit (executive deputy director for the Illinois Board of Higher Education), and Brad White (data analyst for Lewis & Clark College in Godfrey, Illinois, and part of the Illinois Education Research Council from 2004-2018)—created a model that shifts its focus from 234 standards in Illinois to 58 competencies. “There’s a lot of muck in there, a lot of redundancy,” Latham says. “With a competency model, it’s much more streamlined, cleaner, and it opens the door for future work.”

Many Advantages With a Competency Model

The switch to a competency-based model was sorely needed, she adds. “Most standard sets are very convoluted and not very measurable,” she says. “A lot of times they’ll use words like the teacher understands or acknowledges or values. How do I know if you value something versus what I value? With a competency model, a principal hiring a teacher knows they can count on specific competencies.”

Another advantage of the competency model is it defines competencies at different stages—e.g., entry level, seasoned professional level, veteran leader level. “In a competency model, you can say this is what a competent teacher can do, and then from that we can say this is what a competent teacher assistant can do and this is what a competent teacher leader, a coach, a mentor, can do,” Latham says. “There’s a flow to the competencies, from level to level. That doesn’t happen with one set of standards.”

A competency-based model also allows for students to follow a logical development sequence. “You can actually write learning journeys to give students experiences that can be measured and that can refine their competency,” Latham explains. “It’s a full-circle model.”

Higher Education Needs to Be More Nimble

Besides streamlining a convoluted and ineffective credentialing system, the competency-based model serves another rapidly increasing need.

“The higher education landscape is shifting,” Latham notes. “We’re seeing more and more nontraditional students, older students. We see a lot of working adults changing fields, and we have to acknowledge that. As institutions of higher education, we have to be more nimble and acknowledge mastery, acknowledge what an adult learner or any student may bring that they have already mastered. If they can demonstrate complete competency in an area, should their energy be spent in repeating that? Should everything have to be lockstep, done in the long-held-dear semester or quarter or hour? Or can you do things at different paces? It’s difficult to be nimble in design when centering on a more rigid standard set.”

That’s what the state of Illinois hopes as well. The Illinois Board of Higher Education funded a project for the authors to contribute a chapter to an edited book on the Illinois competency work. Using a Competency Development Process Model in Higher Education expands that original work both in detail and beyond teacher preparation.

For Higher Education—and Beyond

“It’s not just for higher education,” Latham says, “because really, it’s about looking at the standards or principles that guide your industry. For any industry that is standards- or principles-based and is looking at a competency framework, our book allows them to focus on mastery that could be exhibited in a lot of ways. It’s really about how can you take your standards, your legal expectations, your best practices, and form them into competencies.”

Using a Competency Development Process Model in Higher Education helps readers define the problem, establish a competency framework, draft competency statements, ensure measurability, develop assessments, adopt and implement competencies, and evaluate their impact.

“Our biggest hope is that readers don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Latham says. Toward that end, the authors built in a workbook portion at the end of each chapter. “That helps them think through their plan and timeline, not bite off more than they can chew, and build consensus,” she says.

Throughout the arduous and ever-evolving journey that finally gave birth to a book, Latham was guided by one principle: Don’t water down the education.

“I tried to stay true to that throughout the entire process,” she says. “We wanted to allow for a nimbleness that current structures don’t allow in higher education without watering down the rigor and quality.”

 For a sneak preview of Latham’s new book, published by Stylus Publishing, go here.