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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What’s New in K-12 Competency Education?

November 5, 2015 by

Are you interested in understanding the competency-based models in higher education? Chris Sturgis shares her insights into the questions you need to ask about these competency-based programs.

Grant OpportunityScreen Shot 2014-08-30 at 7.22.41 AM

The Center for Innovation in Education and NGLC invite applications to the Assessment for Learning Project. The grants will support educators to fundamentally rethink the core role(s) that assessment can play to support student attainment of deeper learning. Nearly $2 million is available for 12-15 grants. Applications are due December 10, 2015. Learn more and apply here.

Student Reflections on Competency Education

Teacher and Leader Preparation

  • The Educational Leadership program in Texas Tech University’s College of Education will partner with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) to build a grant-funded, competency-based training model for school principals. The $7.2 million federal Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) grant will impact leadership training in high-need schools in Texas, Louisiana and Indiana.
  • Thomas College has announced it will be opening the Center for Innovation in Education which will offer a course of study designed to prepare education graduates to teach Maine’s high school proficiency-based learning curriculum.

Thought Leadership

Other News

  • Learn how to turn student-teacher conferences into student-led meetings, and learn how all parties can play an important role in the learning process of children.
  • Competency-based education is getting employers’ attention to fill gaps in workforce needs, after a study found that critical thinking and problem solving were the top competencies being sought in employees.
  • In Grand Junction, Colorado, interviews with prospective school board members raise the issue of whether to become performance-based.


For more updates, following us on twitter (@CompetencyWorks) and sign up for our monthly newsletter on our homepage.


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Our School’s Developing Understanding of Skills and Dispositions

November 4, 2015 by

This is the first in a series of articles specific to the developing understanding of skills and dispositions of educators working with students in a competency-based educational system. There has been increased recognition nationally of the importance of skills and dispositions and how these are entwined within the overall growth and College and Career Readiness of learners. The skills and dispositions are referred to in a number of ways (Non-cognitive skills, Habits of Learners, Work Habits, General Learning Outcomes, “soft skills,” etc.) Our school has been delving into skills and dispositions for the past few years, but we have found that there are limited resources to support our work. We are very excited about the opportunity to work with the recently released Essential Skills and Dispositions Frameworks (Lench, S., Fukuda, E., & Anderson, R. (2015)) this upcoming school year to support our continued learning in this area. For the purposes of this series of articles, we will be using the term the State of New Hampshire recognizes, Work Study Practices. Locally, we have aligned the Responsive Classroom’s CARES to our State of New Hampshire’s Work Study Practices, which are referenced in the following article.

 Jonathan G. Vander Els, Principal; Jill Lizier, 1st Grade Teacher; and Terry Bolduc, 5th Grade Teacher are all veteran educators at Memorial School, a Pre-K to 5 elementary school within the Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire.

Work Study Practices Picture

Last year, I wrote an article discussing the importance of separating academics from behaviors in a competency-based educational system. Our experience, understanding, and knowledge related to Work Study Practices continue to evolve. We recognize as a system that these skills and dispositions are crucial to the continued progression, increased readiness, and overall success of our learners. Our teachers have worked to refine their practice within the classroom, both instructionally, how skills and dispositions are assessed, and by providing opportunities for increased ownership and engagement with for students as self-directed learners.

As I circulated throughout our building at the very beginning of this school year, I was struck by the depth and deliberate focus on WSP by our teachers. I observed the level of engagement of students within these discussions and activities, and the connections many of our students were making to their own learning. It was incredibly powerful to begin to see the impact and connection that students were making to their own learning needs and how this increased self-awareness was allowing them to better engage in their academics.

The insight of two of our teachers describes their growth in understanding as we began the shift to a competency-based educational system, and how this developed understanding informs their practice in the classroom to this day. Their reflections within this particular article are specific to the beginning stages of our work, and how they began to realize that the Work Study Practices needed to become an integral component of the learning process within their respective learning environments. (more…)

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Preparing to “Turn the Switch” to a Proficiency-Based Learning System

November 3, 2015 by

SwitchIn an earlier blog, I discussed the implementation of a Proficiency Based Learning System via a “phase in” approach and the unintended consequences of such a plan. Although I referred to the alternative approach as “overnight,” clearly much work happens prior to turning the switch from a traditional to a proficiency-based system. However, it does avoid the pitfalls of a phasing in approach. When you turn the switch:

  • There are no guinea pigs. All stakeholders transition at the same time; no one group is left facing change year after year.
  • The this will go away syndrome disappears because the change is here, now. It’s not going away. Our work then turns to a cycle of continuous improvement of the system.
  • The pilot doesn’t exist. By making the change across the board, the message is sent that “we are confident this is the direction to take” and it will succeed.
  • Apples to oranges, the comparing of proficiency-based and traditional grades, is a natural part of the transition. However, it does not happen via the structure of the implementation.

Preparing to ‘Turn the Switch”

So what are steps that experience teaches us need to be taken prior to making such a significant change? Make no mistake about it, this is second order change. It is not the “band aid” approach to school reform that has been happening for decades. Well-meaning tweaks to a failed system can only take us so far. This change goes well beyond what has been happening within our schools. (more…)

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It All Starts with Strong PLCs

November 2, 2015 by

BarbellJonathan Vander Els, principal at Memorial Elementary School, wrote a thoughtful piece about the power of professional learning communities in transitioning to competency education for ALLTHINGSPLC. In it, he described how the key questions guiding PLCs have shaped the progress of Memorial in re-tooling its system to ensure students are successful.

1.) What is it we expect our students to learn?

  • Our teachers are now crystal clear about what students are expected to know and demonstrate. This should never be a mystery, and through backwards design planning, the outcomes for any unit are established and made clear to learners.
  • Our teachers’ increased understanding of competencies ensures a guaranteed and viable curriculum. Our district has high-leverage competencies that guide the learning for our students. Underneath the umbrella of the competencies and within the assessment itself, teachers identify the leverage standards that will be assessed within each assessment.

2.) How will we know when students have learned it?

  • Team-designed rubrics outline precisely what students are expected to know. Competency is the ability for students to transfer their learning in and across content areas. Therefore, our teachers provide real-world problems and cross-curricular assessment opportunities for students to demonstrate this transfer of knowledge to other applicable situations.
  • Team-created common assessments are the driving force behind gathering data specific to each student’s progression of learning. This information is then collaboratively analyzed to inform the next instructional steps and learning pathways for each student.

3.) How will we respond when some students do not learn? (more…)

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Extended Learning Opportunities and Equity

November 1, 2015 by

rfaREL-Northeast and Islands sponsored a webinar on October 21 highlighting new research from Research for Action, with the support of funding from Nellie Mae Education Foundation. The report is called Preliminary Results from a Two-Year Study of the Effects of Extended Learning Opportunities on Student Outcomes in New Hampshire.

The goals of the study of high schools in New Hampshire are three-fold:

  • Understand the variation in Extended Learning Opportunities (ELOs) implementation and participation across the state.
  • Assess differences between the behavioral and academic performance of students in ELO courses compared to students in traditional courses.
  • Understand how ELO participation impacts performance of historically underserved students.

With two guiding questions:

  • How does ELO participation effect key short-term and long-term student outcomes?
  • What school-level factors influence the quality of ELO implementation, student ELO participation, and outcomes?

Given that New Hampshire is in the process of becoming competency-based, with credits expected to be awarded based on what students learned rather than time, the question about school factors could be quite interesting. As in any state moving to competency education, districts and schools are in different stages of the conversion process, with some approaching it as a transformational process in which new values and assumptions are embraced within the system and others seeing it more as a technical reform. Taking into account the degree and quality of implementation of CBE, might there be a difference in the impact of ELOs on student learning?

The study included over 3000 ELOs with a breakdown of online courses (66 percent), community-based experiences (23 percent), and school-based independent projects (11 percent). During the webinar, Paul Leather, Deputy Commissioner at NH’s Department of Education, noted that in the past year state policy has changed so that online courses are no longer considered ELOs. He also explained that going forward, students doing an ELO is going to be considered a requirement rather than an opportunity.

The types of credits earned were 4 percent credit recovery, 30 percent core courses, and 69 percent electives. The fact that some schools do not allow ELOs for core courses may have implications for the findings.

Some of the findings included: (more…)

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Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Choice Words

October 30, 2015 by

Science ClassThis post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on September 14, 2015. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

By now the school year feels under way. The chaos of the first week has subsided. Classes are settling into routines. Units and projects are underway. Our excitement and expectations for the new year, and our students, is still there.

It is these expectations, the ones we as teachers hold up, that have the most power for our students’ learning. This piece from NPR explores the research behind teacher expectations and student achievement, and also offers some ideas for recognizing and adjusting our expectations.

In the book Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, Peter Johnston talks about how the way we speak to our students conveys our expectations. He argues that our language is the central tool for the social, emotional, and academic development of our students. Here are three of my favorite suggestions for how we intentionally use language with our students so that we can create the intellectual life we want them to grow into:

Notice and Name: Be explicit about the praise you give. Say who you saw doing something you want to praise, then say what it is they did.

  • “I noticed, Sean, that you were putting yourself in the character’s shoes in order to figure out their motivations.”
  • “Class, I noticed that each group had different problems with their marshmallow challenge and each group kept trying different prototypes until they found one that worked.”


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Learner Agency: The Missing Link

October 29, 2015 by

Student ControlThis post originally appeared at The Institute for Personalized Learning on September 14, 2015.

Defining Learner Agency
Learner agency often gets missed in conversations on transforming the educational system. We have a sense of ‘agency’ when we feel in control of things that happen around us; when we feel that we can influence events. This is an important sense for learners to develop. Learners must understand:

  • when they need new learning and how to learn what they need
  • when they need to unlearn what will no longer serve them
  • when they need to relearn what they need to be successful

They must develop the capacity to engage strategically in their learning without waiting to be directed. They must take ownership of and responsibility for their learning. And, they must possess the skills to learn independently, without heavy dependence on external structures and direction.

Why Learner Agency is Needed
There is a significant and growing demand for learners to be able to do more than receive instruction, follow a learning path designed by educators and complete problems and assignments presented to them by an adult. Learners need to develop the capacity to shape and manage their learning without over-reliance on the direction and control of others. Too often adults treat children as though they are incapable of making decisions or holding valid opinions. As children advance through the system, they develop a form of “learned helplessness” that keeps them from advocating for themselves. The process for learning and the role learners play must be different than most adults experienced. (more…)

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Biddeford School District: Never Unpack Alone

October 27, 2015 by

Maine Road TripThis post is part of the series Road Trip to Maine.

Dan Joseph, Reinventing Schools Coalition/Marzano Research Lab, suggested I visit with Jeremy Ray, Superintendent of Biddeford School Department, to learn about how they were progressing toward proficiency-based diplomas. The conversation included Margaret Pitts, Principal, Biddeford Primary School; Lindsey Nadeau, Early Childhood Coordinator, JFK Memorial School (kindergarten); Kyle Keenan, Principal, Biddeford Middle School; Mary Bellavance, Instructional Coach at the Middle School and a contributor to CompetencyWorks; Deb Kenney, Principal, Biddeford Intermediate School ; and Paulette Bonneau, Principal, Biddeford Regional Center of Technology. Thanks so much to all of you!

Biddeford is a small district serving a town of 21,000. The student enrollment is approximately 2,600 with about 60 percent FRL. Ray described that although they aspire to higher student achievement, “those kids who go to college tend to stay.” Thus, driving their focus is a strong emphasis on improving achievement and expanding the numbers of students going to college. Already there are signs they are moving in the right direction – Pitts mentioned that the proficiency-based instruction along with strong RTI has resulted in a decrease of third graders who will need intervention next year. Biddeford is already seeing signs of an upward trajectory.

Ramping Up

Ray explained they didn’t jump to the RISC model. He believes that change starts with people. He wanted to make sure that principals would trust the RISC staff. Dan Joseph joined two leadership team meetings before a contract with RISC was established and he began working with teachers.

Biddeford made a decision to focus the community engagement at the school level rather than district. It was a strategic choice for Biddeford. The state policy requires districts to create proficiency-based diplomas, so there is less demand for community-wide engagement to move forward. Yet, community engagement is important for building a shared vision and embracing the new values. Given that Maine takes local control very seriously, it made sense to use an even more decentralized strategy. Keenan explained that they started with having schools engage their parent communities about what is best for our kids.

Ray also believes that “the quickest thing to get a thing killed is to name it.” With the support of the Biddeford School Board, he made sure the message was clear that proficiency-based learning is not an initiative or a fad. This is based on what is best for children.

Starting with K-8

It made sense for Biddeford to start with K-8, as it was already comfortable with standards-based education. Furthermore, high schools add a layer of complexity to change: Maine state policy starts the clock ticking when a student enters ninth grade by only calculating a four-year graduation cohort and counting students who need a fifth year as a drop-out. Thus, they are often the most intransigent to change. (more…)

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