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?

October 8, 2015 by

Screen Shot 2014-08-30 at 7.22.41 AMOhio department of education released its application to participate in the state’s new Competency-based education pilot program. It also created self-assessment tools for school districts to determine their readiness to participate in the program.

More Movement in the States


  • Arne Duncan supports Purdue University’s competency-based education program, and he is quoted as supporting competency education and shifting away from time-based systems.
  • An interview with Jennifer Deenik, Living Systems Science Teacher at Souhegan High School, by Jennifer Poon, Innovation Lab Network Director at CCSSO, takes a peek inside New Hampshire’s performance assessment pilot program.
  • Diploma Plus operates small alternative programs for students who have repeatedly failed a grade or are on the verge of dropping out. This interview with William Diehl, chair of the Diploma Plus board, discusses the key components of the schools’ efforts to prepare students who are coming from behind.
  • The Woodrow Wilson Foundation, in partnership with MIT, are creating the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning Sciences, which provides graduate programs in teacher education and school leadership. The Academy will be competency-based with a blended curriculum, and the first class will enroll in 2017.
  • In Giving Students Charge of How They Learn, John McCarthy discusses student-developed products based on learning targets, student-developed rubrics, student-developed conferences, and setting students free to learn with you.

Videos and Films

  • Beyond Measure is a film that challenges the assumptions of our current education system, and paints a positive picture of what’s possible in American education when communities decide they are ready for change. Watch the trailer here.
  • The Illuminating Standards Video Series explore the relationship between meeting demanding state standards and designing powerful learning experiences for all students. The video series are listed by grade level.


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Buyers Beware

October 7, 2015 by

CautionI am getting a bit frustrated with information management systems that claim to be competency-based. They describe themselves in a number of ways – as LMS and as tracking systems – and I’m sure the names will continue to develop as we get a better grasp on the necessary functionality.

I’ve been spending time over the past year watching demos, visiting vendor booths, and trying to be open-minded about their full functionality. Most of the time I’ve been disappointed.

So before you even spend time looking at a system, ask these questions:

Can it easily show the standards students are working on that may be different than those specifically in the age-based grade level? This is problem number one – most of the systems I have seen continue to use courses as the organizing structure. They load up the course with the grade-level standards, usually from Common Core,  for eighth grade math or ninth grade ELA. But what if a student is working on sixth grade math skills or is advancing to eleventh grade writing? There needs to be a way, an easy way, to show where students are on their learning continuum and for teachers and students to get “credit” for mastering skills even if it isn’t in the grade-level standards. One of the products drawing in a lot of funding requires teachers to add all the standards into their course if they have students working at different levels as an extra, burdensome step. This is one of the core problems of the traditional system – focusing on the curriculum instead of the students. You do not want to institutionalize this with your new information system.

Can I get a student profile that shows me how a student is advancing in all of the disciplines? When a system is teacher-centric, it only focuses on what a teacher needs to know. If it is going to be student-centric, then you should be able to customize student profiles that help students, parents, and advisors reflect on pace and progress. (more…)

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Update from Iowa

October 6, 2015 by
Sandra Dop

Sandra Dop

Thanks to Sandra Dop at the Department of Education for helping me understand how competency education is developing in Iowa. However, any errors are all mine. We’d love to hear from others involved in competency education in Iowa so that we gather different perspectives and insights into your efforts.

The Iowa state legislature opened the door to competency-based education three years ago when they eliminated the Carnegie unit as the only way to earn credit in Iowa high schools and instructed the Department of Education to establish the Iowa CBE Collaborative to investigate CBE and develop pathways for others to engage in the transformation. The Collaborative has five years to complete two goals: establish Iowa demonstration sites and develop a Framework for Transformation to a CBE System.

The first year or so was spent with the ten districts of the Collaborative exploring together what it means to be personalized and competency-based. They brought in speakers such as Susan Patrick, iNACOL; Rose Colby, New Hampshire; Laurie Gagon and Gary Chapin, the Center for Collaborative Education; Kim Carter, QED Foundation and founder of Making Community Connections Charter School; the Reinventing Schools Coalition, and yours truly. The state provided resources such as Delivering on the Promise, Community-Based Learning: Awakening the Mission of Public Schools, Make Just One Change, and Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.

Districts developed a variety of pilots that emphasized different aspects of competency education: personalized, blended learning, and transparency of learning goals, rubrics, and progress. For example, Cedar Rapids moved well beyond the pilot stage when they developed Iowa BIG, which takes advantage of the competency-based structure to support students in taking on big, interesting projects while ensuring they are building their skills. Mason City started with one sixth grade math teacher engaging in blended learning and are slowly and purposefully expanding. Van Meter is investing in project-based learning, using twenty-first century skills as the framework to guide student learning, and is also remodeling their building to provide open space for peer and student/teacher collaboration. Spirit Lake started with a two-week project-based January term (J-Term) in secondary, and Franklin Elementary in Muscatine did a two-week intersession to connect their students to community mentors and real world projects. Each district is finding its own way into the transformation. (more…)

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Why Making Meaning Matters for Student Ownership

October 5, 2015 by

EmpanadaThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on September 12, 2015. 

This weekend I decided to make empanadas. I looked to my Chilean cookbook for inspiration, but ultimately determined lard, hard boiled eggs, and raisins did not belong in my version. So, I started to play. I peeked inside the refrigerator to see what ingredients might work, scanned the pantry for additional items with complementary flavors and began mixing, chopping, measuring.

At some point during my experiment, as I was standing there making the empanada dough from scratch, rolling it out, kneading it, and forming it into a meal, I felt this sense of pride and satisfaction settle in over me. I wasn’t just a consumer; I became a creator. I didn’t just heat up a Hot Pocket, I made one. And it felt good.

Learning From Scratch

I think kids feel the same way. Our students learn best when they make the meaning, when they begin to own the learning. When students start to control things like pace, product, even the content, they make more meaning from scratch.

We are simply settling for a shadow of what learning can be when we, as teachers, provide answers too soon and grant little time for students to wonder and make.

Our students need to see-think-wonder their way through new ideas and concepts instead of being told the right answer. They need to use real tools, pull back the bark and discover what is hiding underneath.

Our students need us to stop taking over, grabbing the mouse, the iPad, the pencil, or the paintbrush to show them how it’s done.

Our students need time to think, explore, and be puzzled–time to not know on their journey to knowing. Time to struggle and experiment and test hypotheses.

Our students need to know we, as their teachers, value thoughtful questions over answers. (more…)

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Calling All Ideas for Re-Thinking High School

October 1, 2015 by

rethinkThe Super School Project website is super-cool. But I’m always a bit suspicious of the super-cool stuff because it can be more hype than substance. So I searched and searched until I found out that the folks behind this project are super-strong advocates for equity and serving our most vulnerable young people. It ends up that Russlynn Ali (Ed Trust and Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights in US Department of Education) and Geoff Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone are some of the brains behind the Super School Project.

The Super School Project is designed to get ideas flowing about what school could look like. It’s designed to help us imagine beyond what we know. And they have $50 million to fund teams that come up with super-duper ideas for new schools.

I sure hope some of you will form teams and put together new school ideas that start with a competency-based infrastructure. Even if you don’t, I think you will find that the resources on this site will be helpful to you in engaging school boards, community members, educators, and students. The quick briefs (scroll down this page to find them) about the Science of Adolescent Learning, Youth Experience and Aspiration, Students in the 21st century, School Mission and Culture, Teaching and Learning, Networks and Partnerships, and the super-important Student Agency and Engagement will all be helpful to you in your work to ramp up and begin the conversion to competency education.

They definitely need one of the briefs on competency education to help others learn to think beyond the wrappings of the time-based system.

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Going BIG in Cedar Rapids

September 30, 2015 by

iowa bigCedar Rapids is only twenty minutes down the road from Iowa City, a center of the educational curriculum and assessment industry (ACT and Pearson both have offices there), but feels like a journey twenty years into the future. I had a chance to meet with Cedar Rapids Associate Superintendent, Trace Pickering, and visit Iowa BIG thanks to an introduction from Sandra Dop, competency education guru at the Iowa Department of Education.

In 2008, a devastating flood destroyed Cedar Rapids’ downtown and many residential areas. Community members came together and realized that rebuilding the city provided an opportunity to completely rethink how they did things, including redesigning education. As part of the planning process, community leaders conducted what they affectionately, but unofficially, called the “Billy Madison Project.” Adult community leaders attended high school to see how they would experience it with the hindsight of their own education, life experience, and knowledge of the skills actually needed to be successful in a career. They realized how ridiculous it seemed to ask students to sit through lectures, with bell schedules and silos between subjects. They agreed that the following key elements would be necessary in a new school model:

  • Focus on kids’ passions: because most successful adults have passion for what they’re doing;
  • Get kids out doing real work: the community has more problems and opportunities than the adults can address on their own. The Cedar Rapids area has 7000 high school students—an untapped resource for the community;
  • Make sure kids are learning content in an integrated way: academic rigor is essential, but it must be relevant.

Iowa BIG was founded as a result of these findings and the superintendent agreed to include it in the district’s portfolio of educational opportunities. (more…)

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Education Re-Imagined

September 29, 2015 by

pic 1Convergence, a national organization tackling big social issues, released a fantastic report titled Education Re-Imagined today. The report “seeks to accelerate the growth of learner-centered education” by highlighting pioneers. Convergence defines a learner-centered education as having five elements: competency-based, personalized, learner agency, socially embedded, and open-walled.

Many of the districts and schools promoted by Convergence are well-developed competency-based models, including Chugach School District (click here for CompetencyWorks case study), Iowa BIG (a visit to BIG by Maria Worthen will be published tomorrow), Lindsay Unified (click here for our case study), Making Community Connections Charter School (click here for our case study), Taylor County School District, and Summit Public Schools. Convergence’s profiles are short one pagers you can easily use with school board, community members, and parents.

The real power of this report is the advisory board, which includes John Jackson, President & CEP Schott Foundation; Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers; Becky Pringle, Vice President, National Education Association; Johnny Veselka, Executive Director, Texas Association of Schools Administrators; as well as principals, former superintendents, business leaders, and foundation leaders. You can use this report to demonstrate that these different perspectives and institutions are all “converging” on a common vision for education in America.

You might find parts of the reports helpful to your own communication efforts: (more…)

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Innovation Springing Up in Springdale

September 28, 2015 by

Dr. Megan Witonski

When you talk to Dr. Megan Witonski, Associate Superintendent in Springdale School District (AR), it feels like she is just about to jump out of the phone, she is that full of passion, insightfulness, and the all-important we-are-going-to-make-this-happen-ness. I couldn’t but help imagine her with a superhero cloak.

Springdale, based in Northwest Arkansas, has 23,000 students, half of whom are English Language Learners. The district is entering their second year of implementation of a new 8-12 School of Innovation. The strategy doesn’t end with a new school – Springdale is personalizing their school district by having six of their schools approved (and the waivers that come with it) under the Arkansas Department of Education School of Innovation initiative. These six schools all provide students to the School of Innovation, led by principal Joe Rollins.

We’ve all seen districts start up new innovative schools but leave the others to stagnate. Not so at Springdale. For example, they found that advisories have been instrumental in the new School for Innovation in lifting up student voice, ensuring strong relationships are built with students, and helping to personalize instruction and support so they can be confident students are learning. As a result, they’ve already introduced advisories into the other middle and high schools.

What Inspired Springdale to Personalize: Witonski explained that there were several forces at work leading them to personalization. First, they wanted to make sure they were fully preparing their students for life after high school. They wanted to reach beyond the basic requirements for graduation. Second, with half of their student body learning English and needing help to fully build up their strength in the academic use of English, they needed a model that would ensure every student was fully engaged and able to get the support he or she needed.

Witonski said, “We were doing a great job for most students, but there is a population we need to seek out new approaches to reach and help build a wider set of skills. We began by looking at the most important ingredients for what students needed to be ready for college and careers. We wanted to make sure they had all the tools in their toolbelt to be successful. From there, we looked at what a structure could look like that would help them build those skills.” (more…)

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