CompetencyWorks is an online resource dedicated to providing information and knowledge about competency education in the K-12 education system. Drawing on lessons learned by innovators and early adopters, CompetencyWorks shares original research, knowledge and a variety of perspectives through an informative blog with practitioner knowledge, policy advancements, papers on emerging issues and a wiki with resources curated from across the field. CompetencyWorks also offers a blog on competency education in higher education so that the sectors can learn from each other and begin to align systems across K-12, higher education and the workplace.

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With Much Sadness We Remember Diane Smith

December 9, 2016 by
Smith Diane

Diane Smith, Jan. 28, 1950 – Nov. 30, 2016

We lost Diane Smith recently, and the world feels very different. Diane was the Teaching & Learning Initiative Director at Oregon’s Business Education Compact, author of It’s About Time: A Framework for Proficiency-based Teaching & Learning and a valuable member of the CompetencyWorks Advisory Board. Her death came as a shock to all of us who cared for her, respected her, and were inspired by her never-ending enthusiasm to advance proficiency-based learning.

In preparing to write this tribute, Susan Patrick reminded me that we often turn to one of Diane’s statements, “Performance or competency based learning is fundamental to personalizing learning at scale and it challenges almost all of our assumptions about the present system.” That fact that we were forging into such new territory didn’t bother Diane at all. In fact she found it enthralling – she was simply an adventurer.

There is a passage in her obituary that I want to share with you, as I think it captures Diane’s entrepreneurial spirit perfectly:

Diane didn’t believe we needed to think outside the box with respect to educational reform, but rather asked attendees of her trainings, “what box?” She radiated joy and possibility that was contagious.

By now, you hopefully have a smile on your face thinking about her enthusiasm for learning and teaching.

Here are a few more memories of Diane from our colleagues:

I remember meeting Diane Smith and being amazed at the level of commitment and the span of influence of her work in competency education. She was an ardent supporter of examining systems change for competency-based pathways in partnership with local school systems and the state. Diane Smith was an early leader championing the need to move from a time-based system toward one that ensures mastery. She helped launch, drive, and support the work in Oregon over decades of sustained leadership. She was dedicated, passionate, and selfless with furthering the cause to ensure every student had the full range of knowledge and skills mastered for future success. She was kind and generously shared her knowledge broadly across the United States, taking lessons learned in Oregon with the state and with districts and working with others across the country to provide a pathway forward. She will be sorely missed by her colleagues and friends. – Susan Patrick, iNACOL, President and CEO

Diane was always generous with her time and knowledge as an expert source as well as a mentor in providing tremendous encouragement and support for tackling issues in how to approach proficiency based learning and teaching. – Liz Glowa, consultant and author of Student-Centered Learning: Functional Requirements for Integrated Systems to Optimize Learning

Diane’s combination of professionalism and warmness permeated every room she was in. She could engage people in a conversation with ease and make them feel as though they had known each other for years, even if they just met. Her dedication to the students and teachers of Oregon was evident in the way her eyes lit up when she talked about her work. I will miss her kindness, and I will always be thankful for her partnership. – Anne Olson, Director of State Advocacy, KnowledgeWorks

Donations may be made in Diane’s honor by visiting or calling 541-979-2773. Your condolences for the family may be posted online at

Please, it helps all of us to remember her. We hope you will share your memories in the comments below.

Diane, we are missing you.

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Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Applied Learning and W2AL


h20This post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on November 30, 2016. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

There has been some confusion here in RSU2 as of late about what Applied Learning is. So, let’s take a few moments to clear some things up. First, Applied Learning is NOT an IT. Applied Learning is a philosophy, a set of principles for instruction and includes some specific filters for instructional decision making:

Students working their way through a well defined continuum of learning using their passions to create a path and choose how they will demonstrate their understanding of the learning. Applied learning opportunities include:

  • inquiry based in driving questions or problems
  • choice in learning process (input, process, output)
  • learning put to use, not simply tested
  • reflection on learning

As you can see, there is no one prescribed way to “do” Applied Learning. As long as a teacher, or team, is living up to the philosophical framework the learners are working in an Applied Learning environment. Design thinking, project-based learning, place-based learning, Expeditionary Learning, game-based learning, service learning, and any other x-based learning you can think of can all fit under the umbrella of Applied Learning. That is exactly how we use the term Applied Learning here at RSU2. It is an umbrella term to hold all of the different ways a teacher, team, or school could approach learner centered, proficiency based education. The key is that an applied learning opportunity includes all of the philosophical aspects; without them the learning opportunity cannot be considered to be Applied Learning. An Applied Learning opportunity can happen in any class, in any content, at any time, with any teacher. (more…)

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Illinois Launches Competency Education Pilot Program

December 8, 2016 by

Tony Smith, State Superintendent, Illinois

Illinois keeps surprising me. First, in July they passed the Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act, which included a competency-based pilot (innovation space without any additional funding) as well as an effort to begin the calibration process between graduation expectations in mathematics and freshman-year mathematics in higher education. Then a second surprise. Within five months of the new legislation, they have launched the Competency-Based High School Graduation Requirements Pilot Program for twelve districts to “replace high school graduation course requirements with a competency-based learning system.”

The pilot only focuses on grades 9-12, although districts will quickly learn that they are going to want a full district system – otherwise there is a constant flow of students with big gaps in their learning as students in the earlier years are passed on without ensuring they are mastering the fundamentals.

The competency-based learning systems must have the following elements:

  • Demonstrate mastery of all required competencies to earn credit.
  • Demonstrate mastery of adaptive competencies (foundational skills needed for success in college, careers, and life, such as, but not limited to, work ethic, professionalism, communication, collaboration and interpersonal skills, and problem-solving) defined by the school district, in addition to academic competencies.
  • Advance once they have demonstrated mastery.
  • Receive more time and personalized instruction, if needed, to demonstrate mastery.
  • Have the ability to attain advanced postsecondary education and career-related competencies beyond those needed for graduation.
  • Be assessed using multiple measures to determine mastery, usually requiring application of knowledge.
  • Be able to earn credit toward graduation requirements in ways other than traditional coursework, including learning opportunities outside the traditional classroom setting, such as supervised career development experiences.


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Pacing in Competency-Based Learning

December 7, 2016 by

pacingThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on November 23, 2016.

In a recent school design workshop, a school leader asked, “How do we avoid students racing through the system at the expense of depth?”

To make this more challenging, she added, “How do we avoid encouraging parents to compete/brag on progress (e.g., my son is 1.5 years ahead of his age group)?”

No drag racing. Learning isn’t a drag race, but we may inadvertently set up rules that suggest otherwise. Most of us have seen well-intentioned credit recovery courses that were nothing more than clicking through online content and assessments. It may help students quickly earn credits, but it rewards low-level engagement and recall.

To avoid racing it’s important to measure what matters: if you want depth, assessments should value it. As NGLC MyWays suggests, it is important to measure creativity, critical thinking, entrepreneurship, collaboration and social skills. As Buck suggests, requiring key success skills, sustained inquiry and a public product contributes to deeper learning. The iNACOL definition recommends:

  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

The great “show what you know” school networks (HTH, NTN, EL) have retained an age cohort model and encourage the benefits of peer learning opportunities in a project-based environment. They avoid the free-rider problem by assessing individual work.

We’ve seen schools that encourage peer learning with cool avatars on learning platforms that signify who can help with what. Other schools encourage collaboration with low-cost hacks (need help/can help). (more…)

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Leveling and Parent Conversations

December 6, 2016 by

notebooksThis is the twentieth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

As described previously, schools will need to determine students’ academic levels as distinct from their grade levels (often referred to as leveling). It will be important to help teachers prepare for engaging parents in the initial conversation about where students are on their learning progression. Anticipate questions such as, “Why is my child not at grade level? Why are you starting him on an academic performance level rather than on grade level? Why is my child’s target for growth an academic level or two rather than their grade level?” (Listen between the lines, as what they are really asking is, “Will my child ever catch up?”)

According to Copper Stoll, formerly Chief Academic Officer at Adams 50, the district dedicated a day to meet with every parent to inform them of their child’s placement in ELA and math the spring before they began their K-8 competency-based system. Teachers had talking points to help create a consistent message. They personalized the conversation by providing folders that included information on the standards their child would be learning based on the student’s academic placement as well as brochures that explained the personalized mastery system. This laid the groundwork so parents wouldn’t be surprised if their child was placed in an academic performance level below their chronological grade level in the coming year. They continued to use a quarterly reporting system that parents were used to while introducing the standards-based progress reports. They also offered parents access to the electronic information system so they could monitor progress independently. According to Stoll, “Parents didn’t express any concerns, as they knew their kids were behind and they were grateful that we were finally doing something to address it!” (more…)

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Preparing Teachers for Personalized Classrooms

December 5, 2016 by

classroomThis is the nineteenth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

One of the necessary steps to ensure a district is creating a student-centered culture rather than one solely driven by standards is to prepare teachers for managing personalized classrooms. Pittsfield School District provided professional coaching courses for all their teachers. Don Siviski, former Superintendent of RSU2, describes eliminating all travel and non-related professional development in order to stop doing what wasn’t working and marshalling all resources to supporting teachers to prepare for the transition to proficiency-based learning. Maine districts, in partnership with the Reinventing Schools Coalition, offered training on classroom design to help teachers look at their own beliefs about learning, examine tenets of personalizing learning, build student agency by creating classroom codes of collaboration, introduce new operating procedures, enhance formative assessment, develop and take advantage of transparency of learning targets, and plan for a competency-based instructional model that emphasizes higher order skills.

Teachers can begin to use a variety of ways to manage their personalized classroom, including creating a shared purpose with their students, standard operating procedures that emphasize how students can get help (re-read the directions, ask a peer, then ask the teacher), visuals with the standards to indicate how students are progressing, posters that emphasize a culture of learning and the idea that mistakes are simply part of that process, examples of student work that are considered proficient, parking lots, and planning tools to guide students in thinking through what they will need to be successful. (more…)

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November CompetencyWorks Catch-Up

December 1, 2016 by

calendar-page-novHere are the highlights from November 2016 on CompetencyWorks. Happy reading. And let us know if you have questions you want us to delve into!


Implementing Competency-Based Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders



How Competency-Based Education Can Transform K-12 and Connect with Higher Education by Tom Vander Ark and Karla Phillips

What’s New in Competency-Based Higher Education? by Natalie Abel



Telling Our Story

Crucial Mindsets by Courtney Belolan

What’s New in K-12 Competency Education? by Natalie Abel


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What’s New in K-12 Competency-Based Education?


What's NewNews


Practitioner Perspectives


  • Fletcher Elementary School students are hiring staff for next fall, including job searches, reviewing applications, writing questions and conducting interviews—as a means to promote student leadership, agency and engagement.
  • Winooski School District shared a video highlighting their story of how personalized learning opened opportunities and prepared students for college and career.

Community Engagement

  • Colorado’s District 51 is engaging their community and setting a new vision for K-12 education by asking, “What skills do we want our graduates to have?”
  • The Vermont Department of Education has made stakeholder engagement part of their continuous improvement project as they transition to ESSA.
  • This article is an example of how one might work through the many concepts undergirding the shift to personalized learning—by questioning a broader way of defining student success and proficiency-based learning. How might you respond to someone who raises these questions in your community?


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Moving from Islands of Innovation to a District of Distinction in Personalized Learning (Part Two)

November 30, 2016 by

carverThis is the second post in a two-part series from Eastern Carver County Schools. Read the first here.

Simplifying and expanding
The strategic planning process from 2012 to 2014 laid the foundation for the development in 2015 of Eastern Carver County’s five-point personalized learning star. This addressed the uncertainty and variability we experienced in the earlier planning process. The visual aid tied together all of the pieces of work. The star includes key questions for school teams to answer.

  • Purposeful Learning: How do learners find relevancy and make connections between themselves and their learning?
  • Engagement with Learning Tools: How do learners purposefully select tools to support their learning?
  • Collaborative Environment: How do learners leverage their environment to maximize their learning?
  • Learner Voice and Choice: How do learners design and take ownership of their learning?
  • Purposeful Instruction, Assessment and Feedback: How do learners leverage relevant learning targets and authentic learning opportunities that meet their needs? How do learners use evidence and feedback to further their learning?

The district developed a website, to provide resources and support to teachers, parents, and the community.

Using these five points, questions were posed to building level administrators at a monthly district leadership meeting. It was the last question — how do learners leverage relevant learning targets and authentic learning opportunities that meet their needs? — that was the most tantalizing and seemed to be the lever that propelled buildings toward full-scale implementation of personalized learning. The change in culture encourage educators to think differently about our work motivated many buildings to deepen their engagement in this work. Buildings sought out their pioneers and met this innovation mindset challenge by asking these same questions of staff. In one building, staff collaborated to integrate curriculum and standards around learning themes and tie their curriculum to these themes. Language around content changed to language around learning. By linking the learning together, teachers became facilitators of learning rather than teachers of content. Classrooms and hallways were transformed to create learning spaces with specific purposes and learners were consulted on what environment they needed for different learning opportunities. Bell schedules were tossed out in favor of student-driven schedules based on their needs. Teacher desks were moved to storage so classrooms could be transformed into learning environments each with unique purposes to support student learning. Time became more flexible with opportunities for learners to flex their time where they need for their learning. Teachers embraced informal learning time for student support and conferencing. Every nook and cranny in buildings became prime learning real estate. Is a student done with her learning in math, great! Now, flex out to open space to collaborate with other learners on science, or flex into a lesson with your world language teacher for more guidance. In one high school, teachers needing to be absent could opt out of a substitute teacher and use that time for tutoring, independent learning or group work. Bottom line: do what you need to do for your learning. (more…)

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