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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RSU2: Entering a New Stage in Building a High Quality Proficiency-Based District

January 5, 2016 by

poss pic for rsu2_oneThis post is part of the Maine Road Trip series. This is the first post on my conversations at RSU2 in Maine. 

RSU2 is a district that has been staying the course, even through two superintendent changes (Don Siviski is now at Center for Center for Secondary School Redesign; Virgel Hammonds is now at KnowledgeWorks; and Bill Zima, previously the principal at Mt. Ararat Middle School, is now the superintendent). This says a lot about the school board’s commitment to having each and every student be prepared for college and careers. If we had a CompetencyWorks award for school board leadership, RSU2 would definitely get one.

Given that they are one of the districts with the most experience with competency education (Chugach has the most experience, followed by Lindsay), my visit to RSU2 was much more focused on conversations with the district leadership team, principals, and teachers rather than classroom visits. My objective in visiting RSU2 was to reflect with them upon their lessons learned.

It takes a load of leadership and extra effort to transform a traditional district to personalized, proficiency-based learning. It’s a steep learning curve to tackle – growth mindset, learning to design and manage personalized classrooms, learning how to enable and support students as they build habits of work and agency, designing and aligning instruction and assessment around measurable objectives and learning targets, calibration and assessment literacy, organizing schedules so teachers have time for working together and to provide just-in-time support to students, building up instructional skills, new grading policies, new information management systems to track progress – and districts have to help every teacher make the transition. I wanted to find out what they might have done differently, what has been particularly challenging, and what they see as their next steps.

I began my day at RSU2 in Maine with a conversation with Zima (a frequent contributor to CompetencyWorks); principals from all nine schools; Matt Shea, Coordinator of Student Achievement; and John Armentrout, Director of Information Technology. I opened the conversation with the question, “What do you know now that you wished you knew when you started?”

Tips for Implementation

Armentrout summarized a number of insights about implementation: (more…)

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From “Shock and Awe” to Systemic Enabling: All Eyes on New Hampshire

January 4, 2016 by

This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on December 11, 2015.

The successful, bipartisan (what?) effort to revamp the nation’s core set of K-12 education laws essentially puts an end to one generation-long era of school reform – let’s call it Standards Push – and ushers in the next.

How Policy and Systems Trigger the Ways We Behave


Next Gen Learning Challenges (NGLC) graphic

It’s too soon to label this new era, but there is a growing sense of what it needs to reflect. Of all the From This/To That tables I’ve seen lately, this one from Education Reimagined, an initiative of Convergence, developed over 18 months of effort by a committee composed of union leaders and libertarian philanthropists and advocates of every stripe in between, seems readily on the mark: (more…)

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What’s New in K-12 Competency Education?

January 1, 2016 by

Screen Shot 2014-08-30 at 7.22.41 AMThe Next State of Learning project, newly launched by the Innovation Lab Network (ILN) at CCSSO, aims to capture the stories of states who are scaling and sharing innovations within their districts. The project will capture the stories of how states in the ILN are scaling and sharing innovation within their districts.

Thought Leadership

  • Why do we continue to teach students grade-level standards based on their age when their skills are actually two, three, or more academic levels lower (or higher)? Chris Sturgis tackles this issue about reframing education and teaching students where they are in their learning (not where they “should” be).
  • Andrew Miller wrote an article providing teaching strategies to avoid “learned helplessness” in students and empowering students to be self-directed learners. These strategies include making learning resources available, asking questions “for” (not “about”) learning, not giving students’ answers and allowing for failure.
  • KnowledgeWorks outlines the essentials of competency-based education, including transparent learning outcomes, mastery rather than seat time, real and relevant assignments, and a community-based strategic design plan.
  • This story on Coyote Springs Elementary in Arizona describes the implications when schools make other important skills and competencies such as the 4 C’s (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity) a core part of the design of the school.


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Teaching Differently in Competency-Based Schools

December 29, 2015 by
Bob Sornson

Bob Sornson

In December, Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency Based Learning to Transform Our Schools by Bob Sornson will be released by Routledge. Bob has shared an excerpt of the book from the chapter on Teaching Differently.

“It’s my job to deliver the content. It’s the students’ job to keep up,” a high school social studies teacher once explained to me. As a beginning high school special education teacher, it told me all I needed to know, that I should never place another of our handicapped learners in his class, and that many other students would suffer under his instruction. While this view is incredibly insensitive to the needs of students, it is also consistent with the structure of most curriculum driven instructional systems. Teachers are given a lot to cover, told that they should be able to use their time well, cover every chapter and content expectation, manage behavior, and somehow motivate kids to try harder so they achieve higher test scores.

Imagine a school bus driver given a route to drive that is longer than could be reasonable managed in the time allowed. In this metaphor, drivers who race through the bus route and get to school on time are given kudos. And if you arrive at school with only a handful of kids, nobody complains.

When covering content is the prime objective, other behaviors suffer: Taking time to build relationships, teaching and practicing classroom routines, helping kids get to know and trust each other, exploring each student’s special interests, creating projects and activities which bring learning to life, developing intrinsic motivation to learn, developing values and character.


Many new teachers have been trained to efficiently deliver content and lessons. When they reach the classroom they confront the reality of behavior management, absenteeism, different learning skills, interests, and rates of learning, and the futility of “covering content” when students are not learning. These issues, along with complex school bureaucracies, and a lack of professionalism in many school cultures, drives some of our best young educators away from teaching.

For those educators who have chosen to stay, the pressure to cover and the pressure to achieve better test scores has increased year by year. Because Cover Test and Sort is such a pervasive model, many educators don’t even consider the alternatives. As we transition to competency based learning, the basic training we provide to teachers will change, on-going professional development will be important, and we will bring a much needed love of learning back into the schools and into our lives as professionals. (more…)

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Reflections on Student-Centered Learning Part 1 – Student Perspective

December 22, 2015 by

StudentsattheCenterThis post originally appeared at Students at the Center Hub  on November 27, 2015.

The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) hosted their annual Symposium in Orlando, FL. last week. I attended—along with over 3,000 educators, experts, thought leaders, and innovators—and left with a sense of both the enormity of the charge of educating all young people to succeed in the world of the future, and the importance of taking up this charge with the vigor and passion that was exhibited by symposium presenters and attendees.

Though I attended several thought-provoking and engaging sessions, the two that stand out for me are the ones that featured voices of the students and educators who are doing the hard (and rewarding) work to personalize learning. In these two sessions—the first a panel of high school and middle school student respondents from Charleston, South Carolina and Clermont, Florida, and the second a conversation with iNACOL Teacher of the Year Paula Barr—I was struck by how closely aligned these student and teacher experiences are with both what research tells us about the best approaches to teaching and learning, and with each other—the teacher experience with the student experience across age level and school district.

Here are my observations:

What does your classroom look like?

For the high school students, personalized learning classrooms are set with different work areas for students to move among throughout their day, including couches, comfy chairs, and modular circular tables that can be reconfigured into singles or small groups. The tables have white board surface so students can work out problems together directly on the tabletop. Students acknowledged that teachers and administrators might be reticent to put living room furniture into classrooms, but from their perspective having more comfortable chairs doesn’t make them relax; “it’s much easier to fall asleep in rows.”

Relationships (peer to peer and student-teacher)

Students note a significant change in their peer-to-peer and student-teacher relationships as a result of personalized learning. Students are encouraged to seek assistance from their peers before consulting the teacher. Unlike traditional stand and deliver education, it also gives them the opportunity to interact with a wide variety of their classmates as they learn that different peers have strengths in different areas. The peer interaction frees up teacher time for more one-on-one interaction with each student.

Student ownership

The students clearly and passionately conveyed that personalized learning has empowered them to take ownership of their education. They don’t feel that they need to get permission from the teacher for every move they make in the classroom, and are more frequently turning to their own problem-solving or the aid of peers as a first resort. This is derived from the class’ Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), which states that when students encounter an academic hurdle, they will first consult a peer, second revisit course material, and third ask the teacher for assistance. Students in both schools had similar classroom procedures that were developed and agreed to by the students. This allowed them to feel that they had a stake in their classroom community. “You don’t want to agree to something you didn’t have a say in.”

Overall, the biggest change for these students was going from being told what to do every day to having to guide their own paths. With the help of their roadmaps, and after acclimating to the new way of learning, student love this new sense of ownership and responsibility. (more…)

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Nellie Mae Education Foundation Statement on ESSA

December 19, 2015 by

Nellie MaeThis statement was released by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation on December 11, 2015.

President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act(ESSA) into law yesterday. This response to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) – the 2002 rendition of the historic Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which first passed in the civil rights-rich 60’s, was long overdue. Our experience with NCLB made it clear that a rewrite was needed based on what we have learned about the limits of an approach to school improvement driven by high standards, measured by narrow assessments and provoked by mostly uninteresting, remedial consequences.

From our perspective at The Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the new law holds great promise for advancing public education, as one of its explicit aims is to grow, spread and improve innovative, evidence-based, student-centered approaches to learning – where learning is personalized, competency-based, dependent on strong student ownership, and not limited to traditional classrooms or classrooms at all. This is good news.

We also believe that there are aspects of this new direction that demand vigilant attention. As we open up opportunities for creativity in terms of educational design, we must make sure that we organize for universal attainment of deeper learning outcomes and do not unintentionally leave more learners behind in the process.

If our nation is going to advance, we must be sure that creative learning designs are effective ones, including in our poorest communities. We must ensure that we are elevating the learning and readiness of graduates of all colors in all zip codes to combat the growing economic inequalities that are so pervasive across our country. While the move to state-owned responsibility and district-based accountability may be the way forward, as advocates of equity it leaves us uneasy, even as it replaces the untenable approaches to securing equity in NCLB.

ESSA mandates a big shift toward balancing shared responsibility, as the law moves significant decision-making about responses to low performance to the district level guided by state authority. However, the distribution of authority to the local level will demand capacity-building so that local communities can meet those responsibilities. Today most districts do not have the capacity to do so, as so much energy has been directed to a compliance-based framework. This is an issue any advocates of dramatic, equitable change and improvement will care about. It is one thing to open up opportunity. It is another to be able to fully, expertly and responsibly take advantage of the opportunity. Wealthy districts may be able to meet the challenge even if they do not need to, while those who must cannot without support.

On the positive side for student-centered learning advocates, the law includes opportunities for more states to follow the lead of what many in New England have been pursuing for years – personalized, competency-based approaches. It also allows for research supported approaches. This is no accident. One can see echoes of good, innovative work from Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine, Connecticut and particularly New Hampshire in many passages of ESSA. New England should be proud. (more…)

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Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Learners in the Center

December 18, 2015 by

DartboardThis post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on November 10, 2015. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

The goal of learner-centered education is to create the conditions so that students can be self-motivated to engage in learning. When we rely too heavily on any of the other terms and ideas associated with the idea of putting students at the center of education, the intention behind an incredibly powerful philosophy of education gets watered down. Schools and classrooms can end up in a place where too much responsibility for directing and managing learning is left to the students, and people start wondering if learner-centered education is worth it.

Learner-centered education is challenging for all learning community members, in different ways. Some have to figure out how to take on different responsibilities. Some have to figure out how to let go of some control. Some have to figure out how to fail. Some have to figure out how to rely on others. The key is to focus on setting up a learning environment in which students can’t help but get engaged in learning, and in which they learn the skills and habits needed to take meaningful ownership of their learning.

Put learners at the center by making learning engaging. Connect groups of learning targets together with bigger topics, or broad essential questions. Challenge them to wrestle with problems and dilemmas that have no clear answer. Combine disciplines together in realistic ways. Incorporate group projects and challenges.

Put learners at the center by making learning visible. Provide ways for students to track their own progress. Teach them ways to do this on their own. Be honest with students about where they are in their learning, and let them know what they have to do to move forward. Make clear connections between learning experiences and learning targets. (more…)

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Over-Tested and Under-Prepared

December 17, 2015 by

Over-Tested and Under-PreparedIn December, Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency Based Learning to Transform Our Schools by Bob Sornson will be released by Routledge. Bob has shared an excerpt of the book from the chapter on Personalized Learning and Competency.

A competency based learning system begins with the premise that we truly want each student to succeed. Rather than letting the pacing guide dictate the delivery of instruction, students move ahead toward crucial learning outcomes upon demonstrating the key learning milestones along the path to competency. Students will have as many learning opportunities as they need to develop these crucial skills, and each student is guaranteed to have the support needed to continue learning at their own pace as they progress toward crucial outcomes. (more…)

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Time to Tackle the Elephant

December 16, 2015 by

elephantWhy do we continue to teach students grade-level standards based on their age when their skills are actually two, three, or more academic levels lower?

In states and districts across the country, educators are frustrated and wondering why their students aren’t able to learn algebra as demonstrated on state accountability exams. There are conversations about redesigning the courses, more remediation, and even questions about whether the exams are too hard or the expectations too high. All of it assumes that algebra should be taught in a specific grade and that we will just keep teaching it to kids over and over again until they get it. What’s that saying about insanity – Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?

Competency education suggests another solution: Ensure that students have all the pre-requisite knowledge and are able to engage in skills based on where they are, not where they should be. When we teach them in their “zone” of proximal development, it is personalized learning (or student-centered if you prefer that language). When we teach students based on their grade, we are using the batch method of the antiquated factory model. It may help some students just to have more time and instruction to learn algebra. But for some who may have been passed on to the next grade without becoming proficient or who may have missed concepts along the way due to lack of class attendance because of housing instability, being in the child welfare system, or suffering from poor health, they may need to work in their zone to build up the pre-requisite skills. (more…)

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The Power of Choice: Increasing Novel Reading From 21 Percent to 87 Percent

Crystal Francis

Crystal Bonin

For those of us who have always taught with an end-goal in mind, competency-based education isn’t that big of a shift. We’ve always thought about assessment and the way we’d bring our students to success. In my opinion, the biggest difference between competency-based education and traditional education is that our focus is less on content and recall, and more on differentiation and application.

As an eleventh-grade English teacher at Sanborn Regional High School in New Hampshire, I have three major competencies: reading, writing, and communications. My students don’t earn one grade for the course; they have to pass all of their competencies in order to pass the course.

Traditionally, students in English classes have always practiced these skills. English teachers have always used literature as a vehicle of instruction, have instructed writing, and have encouraged discussion.

Traditionally, students in English classes have also habitually fake-read novels, plagiarized writing, and sat silently during class discussions. (I know that I did.)

In my competency-based classroom, that kind of fake-reading just doesn’t happen anymore. How do we get there? It’s all about student choice. (more…)

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