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?

March 24, 2016 by

Screen Shot 2014-08-30 at 7.22.41 AMStaying the course for over twenty years, Chugach has developed a personalized, performance-based system that places students at the center and deeply values teaching and teachers. CompetencyWorks released a new report on Chugach School district and how they implemented a personalized, performance-based system to serve the remote villages of Native Alaska. Check out the blog post or download the report here.

Upcoming Event: On April 20, CompetencyWorks is hosting an introductory webinar on competency educationRegister here to attend the webinar and learn how we define competency education, explore how schools are implementing competency education, and discuss why educators and communities want to convert to a competency-based structure.


Policy Updates

  • Under ESSA, states and localities have a unique opportunity to revisit accountability systems and rethink how they can better serve students, parents and teachers. Check out this article on how state accountability systems impact student learning.
  • The Florida Senate passed a competency-based education bill, which already passed the House by a 31 to 6 vote. The bill creates pilot programs in 4 Florida districts and establishes a laboratory school run by the University of Florida. (This article explains the competency education pilot program in greater detail.)

Schools Making Gains

  • Teachers from seven District 51 schools in Colorado shared with the school board the challenges and victories they’ve experienced since transitioning to a performance-based system.
  • Windsor Locks, a school implementing personalized learning, demonstrated notable gains in math and reading, pulling them from the list of worst performing schools. This news story shows how Windsor Locks empowers students to discover, to design their learning, to apply it, then to document how they learned it and defend that they learned against rigorous standards.

Research Opportunity

The Students at the Center initiative at Jobs for the Future announced a research collaborative that will build, define, apply and share a robust evidence base for student-centered learning. (Read more here.) They announced 2 opportunities: an RFP on student-centered learning, with a preference for basic exploratory research; and nominations for Students at the Center Distinguished Fellows. Two additional opportunities are expected to release in May. Check here for the most updated information.

Follow us on twitter (@CompetencyWorks) and sign up for our monthly newsletter for more information and updates in K-12 competency education.

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Announcing the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative

March 23, 2016 by

SATCI just heard about the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative. This is a great opportunity for the field of competency education. There are so many things we need to know more about. Here are a few things at the top of my list:

  • What is the impact of CBE on teachers and teaching given how much they are “all in,” “give it a try,” or “this too shall pass” and the specific structures such as planning time, PLCs, calibration, and willingness to do what is right for kids especially giving permission to teach students not curriculum?
  • When is there greater benefit from teaching students where they are at (performance levels) rather than grade level standards, taking into account academic domain, instructional strategies, age, maturity, and where they fall on the continuum between efficacy and learned helplessness? (See Time to Tackle the Elephant.)

Here is the announcement from Jobs for the Future:

The Students at the Center Initiative at Jobs for the Future is excited to announce a first-of-its-kind research collaborative that will build, define, apply, and share a robust evidence base for student-centered learning. The Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative, with initial thought leadership of and support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, will formally launch this fall with a core group of soon-to-be-selected scholars, school leaders, policymakers, practitioners, and funders, each known for their impact and influence, coming together to clarify and catalyze the field. Their bold charge: to work in partnership to investigate and evaluate what we know about student-centered learning both in and beyond today’s schools, and then leverage that knowledge to effect meaningful change at scale.

Do you want to join the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative as we grow and share the evidence for student-centered approaches to learning? If so, we encourage you to take advantage of one of the important and impactful opportunities below. (more…)

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Practicing What We Preach

March 22, 2016 by

ConferenceThis post originally appeared at ASCD Edge on March 13, 2016.

My school district in southern Maine is sixteen months into our journey to a learner-centered, proficiency-based teaching and learning system. Teachers are working incredibly hard to provide engaging, relevant and transparent learning for each child.

As we embrace this work, another one of our goals is to increase student agency. For us, this means taking charge of one’s own learning and fostering learner voice and choice. Increased motivation to engage in learning is becoming evident, now that many of our students see themselves as active learners empowered to make some choices within their learning experiences.

With these principles employed, we began to ask ourselves, “If learner voice and choice is so important and powerful, then shouldn’t we also empower our teachers to have autonomy over their professional learning?”

How many times have you gone to a professional development session, only to feel frustrated because it didn’t meet your individual learning needs? What would happen if we intentionally encouraged teacher voice and choice as we planned and implemented our professional learning time?

This concept was brought to our building leadership team and the group was enthusiastic about the idea. In addition to our PLC work and Instructional Coaching Model, our current district calendar includes monthly early release days for students. This time in the afternoon enables each school to plan additional professional learning for staff.

We planned our first menu of professional learning sessions and sent out a sign-up sheet to staff. The three-hour time frame was chunked into three blocks of time with several offerings for each time block. Personalized learning time to work individually or with colleagues was offered in each of the three blocks, along with facilitated sessions that focused on topics important to proficiency-based teaching and learning. Some of the topics included methods for tracking learner progress over time, technology integration in the classroom and Understanding by Design unit planning. Staff signed up for the sessions that were most relevant to their current learning needs. (more…)

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Two Teachers’ Perspectives on CBE

March 21, 2016 by

Competency-Based Learning


Lauren Vann and Students

I had found much success in the traditional learning model and had become weary of the stream of efforts to change my approach. When I came on board at Red Bank Elementary, I immediately recognized that students at RBE were different. They were learners who wanted to take the reins. They were excited and motivated. It was nothing I had ever seen before. Yes, I had been “successful” in producing average/above average test scores, but was that really my agenda? I began to think of all of the students I had previously taught who had gaps in their learning. I questioned whether or not I’d made a real attempt to close those gaps. I thought of the “high flyers” who always wanted more and wondered if I’d taken them as far as I could have in their learning. While I had always been intentional about teaching to all students and accommodating different learning styles, I couldn’t say that I taught specifically to each child’s needs and met them where they were in the learning progression. After researching competency-based education and hearing unbelievable stories about student success, I made the decision to be “all in.” I never knew how competency-based education would completely change the way I think about teaching and learning. –Lauren Vann

Competency-based education is best practice teaching. It is dependent on the teacher’s ability to intentionally meet the needs of the individual student. Recognizing competency-based learning as what is best for students is a paradigm shift for most educators. While it can be challenging and overwhelming to think logistically about how to be effective in meeting each child’s learning modalities, pace, and needs, it is truly the most efficient way to ensure that every child is getting the most out of their time in the classroom.

Similarities and Differences within a Competency-Based Learning Model vs. Traditional Learning Model

Like the traditional learning model, competency-based focuses on standards. The difference comes in that the traditional model teaches all standards at one pace regardless of student outcomes. Groups of standards are assessed on a single test. Students are given a blanket average for those standards that fall under the given topic heading (e.g., numbers and operations). (more…)

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Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Modeling

March 18, 2016 by

LettersThis post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on January 19, 2016. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

Modeling, or making thinking around behavior, concepts, and skills explicit, is one of the most powerful instructional strategies an educator can use. It is also one of the hardest, especially when it comes to those skills and processes we, as adults, have internalized. These three tips are great way to grow your modeling skills:

Plan it Out

First, identify exactly what it is that needs to be modeled. Is it a behavior? Is it a physical skill? Is it a cognitive skill? Whatever it is, be sure to name it. I might decide that my students need to see a model of someone adding to a conversation, so that is what I will call the skill: adding to a conversation. Next, I am going to think about all the times I have done whatever it is I am modeling and break it down into super-obvious steps. This part can be hard, so take all the time you need and don’t be afraid to revise the steps! So for “adding to a conversation” I might come up with these steps: (more…)

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Parker-Varney Elementary: Keepers of the Bar

March 16, 2016 by
Parker Varney

From the Parker Varney Website

What do you do when the student population in your school reverses the RTI triangle so more kids need intervention than core construction?

Amy Allen, principal at Parker-Varney Elementary School in Manchester, NH, raised this question early on in our conversation. What do you do when you might have over six different reading levels in one class of twenty-five students? She explained that in a kindergarten class, 60 percent of kindergarteners won’t know the letter A, while others are reading at a second grade level.

Allen explained that they are trying to make the shift to meet students where they are. They are using learning progressions so that even if students are organized into grade levels, they are teaching students at their performance levels within the learning progressions. (Please note: In New Hampshire, the term learning progression has a specific meaning. They are research-based maps of how students learn key concepts. One way to understand the difference between standards and learning progressions is to think of standards as what we want students to achieve and learning progressions as the way to help them get there.)

How Parker-Varney is Moving Toward Competency-Based Education

A year and a half ago, Parker-Varney began to partner with 2 Revolutions (2Revs) to revision what they wanted for students in the school and how they wanted to design learning to meet that goal. Allen explained, “When I arrived at Parker-Varney three years ago, we were program driven. We depended heavily on curriculum programs to drive our instruction. The problem is that when you use products like Every Day Math or America’s Choice curriculum, you are completely tied to that curriculum. There is no flexibility or strategy to meet the needs of students who are at a different level.”

Background: Parker-Varney serves 640 students K-5 with 70 percent FRL and 20 percent special education. Many families are in transition, often depending on shelters as they seek more affordable housing. Between 5 percent and 10 percent of students are, at any time, facing major upheaval such as moving to find more affordable housing, having to turn to shelters, having a parent incarcerated, or being placed within the child welfare system. By January 20th there were already fifteen new students.

There was another problem – there was too much focus on assessment and not enough on instruction. When one month they had more assessment days than instruction, they knew they needed to find another way. Allen noted, “We want to make sure that assessments are for learning.” They defined their problem of practice around student engagement, authentic learning, and ensuring that assessment was supportive of the cycle of learning.

Although not sequential, Parker-Varney has taken four big steps toward transitioning their school to competency-based education. (more…)

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Five Key Lessons for Mastery Learning Startup

March 15, 2016 by

Sydney Schaef

This post originally appeared at Springpoint Schools on January 5, 2016. 

As I see it, the biggest challenge we face in American public schools today is this: we’ve got an antiquated factory-based school model, and a workforce that has proven particularly effective in implementation. Let’s face it: most of us were taught this way as students, and most of us were trained this way as teachers. I among.

For the last several years, I have had the opportunity to serve as the Mastery Learning Specialist at the School District of Philadelphia, a position made possible by the Carnegie Corporation’s vanguard school design grant, Opportunity by Design. The grant afforded us as a design team a full year to engage in deep research, scan the field, visit exemplary school sites, talk with stakeholders, design, get feedback from experts, reflect, and iterate on our work.

The experience was transformative. Out of this collaborative design experience have emerged multiple open admission, competency-based schools in Philadelphia, and an open-source competency model, designed and developed as a collaboration between the School District of Philadelphia and nonprofit partner, Building 21. We call it the Learning What Matters Competency Model. The LWM Competency Model has been described by experts as “a major contribution to the field,” and “one of the strongest, personalized, competency-based models in conception.” I share that not to boast, but to say, we took the work very seriously, we were set up for success by the resources invested in the project, and we are now keen to explore opportunities to share the model broadly and invite others to improve, and build upon, the work.

I have come to believe that if you are serious about innovation in education generally, and about transforming outcomes for historically underserved youth specifically, you’ve got to study up on competency-based education (CBE). In every way, CBE challenges the dominant pedagogical model of our American public schools and the assumptions on which it is based. It embodies the principles that I believe must guide and ground the work of redesigning our public schools.

Competency-based education is, interestingly, both ancient and nascent. It is the core of our oldest apprenticeship models that span history and pre-date our formal schooling institutions, yet at the same time, it is an emergent and rapidly growing strand within our current education landscape. Schools and school networks are leading the way in practice. Funders are prioritizing “mastery-based” or competency-based (my preferred term) learning models. Many states are making significant shifts in policy in order to provide the flexibilities needed, such as removing seat-time mandates, rethinking the Carnegie credit as the time-based unit of learning, and exploring flexible promotion, crediting, and graduation pathways and policies. In other words, this is happening – and it’s a powerful and important tide of change in our time. (more…)

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Building 21’s Competency Dashboard

March 14, 2016 by
Thomas Gaffey

Thomas Gaffey

This is the second post about my site visit to Building 21 in Philadelphia. Read the first here.

I had a fascinating conversation with members of Building 21’s design and instructional coaching team, Sydney Schaef, Sandra Moumoutjis, Thomas Gaffey, Angela Stewart, Laura Shubilla, and Chip Linehan. At times I started to explode in giggles of excitement as we spoke about their insights and information management system. B21’s work is invaluable for us to tackle the elephant (i.e., respond to students who have multi-year gaps in their skills). Part of their solution is one of the most student-centered information management systems to support their personalized, competency-based process I have seen.

As described in the first blog, B21 is highly personalized, with students working in their zone along the continua of performance levels for each competency. In order to both monitor progress and measure grade-level performance, they knew they needed an information system that would fully support students and teachers. They visited a number of schools across the country and looked at many of the best information management systems designed for competency-based education. Even those that were the most interesting didn’t reflect their values or design. Most were still course-based, and often with a feel of checklist after checklist. Furthermore, the costs were high, and most weren’t open-source. Thus, despite all the advice to never build your own, they found a partner in Jarvus and their product Slate. (FYI, Ed Surge has a nice piece about the product. Matchbook Learning has used Slate as the platform for their information system Spark, and the U School (sharing space with B21) and the Science Leadership Academy also are using it.)

Designing a Powerful Student-Centric Information System

I wondered aloud how they were able to find a company that seemed to “get CBE” when so many of the vendors keep reproducing courses as the center of their architecture. Gaffey offered, “Get a bunch of twenty-two to twenty-six-year olds and they can do anything. The problem is the folks over thirty think they know what a student information system is.” His statement gets to the heart of the issue – what does a student information system look like in a student-centric, personalized, competency-based system?

Gaffey explained, “There were several things we wanted that traditional SIS and grade reporting systems have been unable to do. First, we want to make sure that learning across the school can be tracked. Second, we focus on mastery. This means we want students submitting multiple pieces of evidence of their learning in multiple contexts. Third, we want to be less course-oriented, more performance-oriented. Fourth, we want to make sure that students can see their growth and progress. Finally, we want everything to feed into a meta-profile for students.”

Here are some of the very cool things that B21 is working toward using a combination of Slate and robust Google Docs: (more…)

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Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Goal Setting

March 11, 2016 by

EggsThis post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on January 11, 2016. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

I used to cringe inside whenever I heard the phrase “goal setting” in relation to my students. Images of ladder and step graphic organizers with goals like “get good grades” or “play professional basketball” with half-hearted steps like “work hard” or “make the team” made me want to give up before I even started.

​Now I think about it differently. Goal setting is about deciding to do something and planning to get it done. Simple as that. Big or small, lofty or humble, anything can be a goal. Stop and get eggs: goal. Get a PHD: goal. Learn to tango: goal. Stop losing my keys: goal. Answer emails: goal. Walk for 20-30 minutes every day: goal. Drink less coffee: goal. I could go on. The goal itself does not matter. What matters is the process, what you do between deciding to do something and doing it.

Plenty of learners can state a goal. It is in the planning and doing that they struggle. Chances are most of the learners in our classes have not actually been taught how to do this. Chances are most learners get limited instruction and practice with how to do this.

In learner-centered environments, goal setting and completion plays a critical role. We need to model for students a variety of strategies for planning and completing goals. Then we need to give them repeated, intentional practice with those strategies. Then we need to guide them to figure out which ones work best for them, and use them. (more…)

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