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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Celebrate the Flops (Then They Don’t Hurt So Much): 7 SEL Mindset Tips

September 1, 2016 by

Belly-FlopThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on July 13, 2016.

Our 15-year-old son loves to flip.

The challenge is, when you flip, there is a good chance you’ll flop. It’s part of the deal.

I bet most of us have experienced–or at least have seen–a pretty nasty belly flop (or “smack” as real divers call it). When I asked college diving coach Gabe Kortuem how he teaches his divers to handle them, his response was quick and convicted.

“We celebrate them. Then they don’t hurt so much.”

The underlying message is pretty obvious. Mistakes are part of the learning process. When we treat them as such, they give us reason to celebrate.

Schools across the country are placing a great deal of emphasis on social emotional learning (SEL), success skills, mindsets, social skills, habits of success and more (call them what you will). Framing learning opportunities with a phrase like “celebrating the flops” can be a great springboard (pun intended) to reinforce SEL habits.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), one of the goals of social emotional learning (SEL) programs is improving student attitudes about self, others and school. Cognitive science research shows it can be done.

What if it became second nature for our responses to have such a positive forward-looking tone. Instead of “fail,” how about “not yet?” Instead of “You’d better not do that again,” what if we said “What did you learn from that one?”

Here are 7 practical SEL tips for teachers and parents to reinforce such mindsets in young people: (more…)

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Making Room for Hardship in Positive Youth Development

August 31, 2016 by

ExclamationI had the chance to re-read the design principles from Carnegie Corporation’s Opportunity by Design and its partner Springpoint Schools the other day. And once again I find myself a bit in awe of the depth of the principles and the implications for how we think about what secondary schools might look like. The first principle is integrates positive youth development to optimize student engagement & effort. We don’t talk about positive youth development much in education – instead we talk about engagement, motivation, and effort. ObD describes this principle as:

  • Caring, consistent student-adult relationships that communicate high expectations for student learning and behavior
  • Clear expectations for student competencies and standards of performance
  • Opportunities for students to contribute to the school environment and have a voice in decisions
  • Encouragement of student responsibility for meeting learning and personal goals
  • Openness to and encouragement of family participation Integration of community participation, assets, and culture

It all sounds great, doesn’t it? But something was gnawing at me as I thought about positive youth development. And then I realized what it was – sometimes discussions about positive youth development are just too positive.

By being so positive, they don’t create the room to talk about the real-life day-to-day hardships, challenges, trauma, and tragedies that shape the lives and development of adolescents. As Christina Rodriguez notes in Responding to the Student’s Dream: Lessons Learned from Positive Youth Developers in New Mexico, “A lot of our schools don’t seem to recognize the variety of students and what students need. There’s not a one-size-fits-all option.” The lives of our students vary – some may face discrimination because of the color of their skin, their accent, or a disability. Some may experience violence or abuse in their homes or in their neighborhoods. Many will hold fear close to their heart as they listen to parents worry about where the next meal with come from, how to pay for school supplies, or where they might find housing next month. (more…)

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Speak Like You Are Right; Listen Like You Are Wrong

August 30, 2016 by

TeamRecently, I found myself stumbling out of a hotel and into a parking lot. My eyes were glassy and my gait was erratic. No, I had not been drinking. Instead, my lack of clarity was caused by something far worse; a parade of lawyers. I had just finished the end-of-year rally with the school lawyers. The way it works, we hear from fifteen lawyers, each given ten minutes, to share everything we need to know about changes in State or Federal laws. This was not drinking from a fire hose. This was drinking from the discharge viaduct of the Hoover Dam! From rental contracts, to special education, to collective bargaining, and everything in between. It was all laid out for us.

As I drove home, finally regaining my breath, I began to ponder how I, as a single individual, finishing my first year as superintendent, can get this done. Even with more years of experience, it seems daunting. How can I monitor all the things I need to monitor while also helping to lead the district to a learner-centered, proficiency-based system? I needed to buy land for a new school. I needed to sell the budget so it would pass referendum. I needed to hire new principals who could lead and also manage our schools as we continue to improve. I needed to… My heart rate increased again and my breath became shallow. Where was my brown paper bag? (more…)

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Updated: Competency-Based Education Across America

August 29, 2016 by

SnapshotI received several requests to organize this by geography, not date. Here it is:

We recently updated the map of competency education because so many states – including Idaho, Florida, Ohio, and Utah – have taken steps forward for state policies to enable and invest in competency-based education. In reflecting upon how competency-based education is developing, we pulled together all the “case studies” we have done based on site visits and interviews in seventeen states. As soon as we can, we want to visit Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, Wisconsin, and we just heard about a district in Mississippi.

For those of you trying to learn more abut competency education, we are hearing that some districts are using the case studies as discussion tools. Everyone reads about one school and then talks about what is challenging, how their understanding of the traditional system is changing, and what ideas they think might be valuable. It’s just a warm-up to embracing the values and assumptions that are the roots of competency education.


Chugach School District (2015)

Chugach School District: A Personalized, Performance-Based System

Part 1 – Explorations in Competency Education

Part 2 – Driven by Student Empowerment: Chugach School District

Part 3 – Chugach School District’s Performance-Based Infrastructure

Part 4 – Chugach Teachers Talk about Teaching

Part 5 – Ownership, Not Buy-In: An Interview with Bob Crumley, Superintendent Chugach School District

Part 6 – Chugach School District: Performance-Based Education in a One-Room School House

Part 7 – Teaching through the Culture: Native Education in a Performance-Based System

Part 8 – Performance-Based Home Schooling

Highland Tech Charter School, Alaska (2014)

Part 1 – Highland Tech Charter School – Putting it All Together

Part 2 – Advice From Highland Tech Students


Springdale School District (2015)

Innovation Springing Up in Springdale


Lindsay Unified High School  (2015)

Part 1 – Six Trends at Lindsay Unified School District

Part 2 – Preparing Students for Life….Not Just College and Careers

Part 3 – An Interview with Principal Jaime Robles, Lindsay High School

Part 4 – An Interview with Brett Grimm: How Lindsay Unified Serves ELL Students

Part 5 – It Starts with Pedagogy: How Lindsay Unified is Integrating Blended Learning



Superintendents Leading the Way in Connecticut

 New Haven (2016)

Creating Meaningful Instruction through Mastery-Based Learning in New Haven, CT (more…)

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Supporting Student Agency Through Student Led Conferences

August 26, 2016 by

Thrive-Public-SchoolsThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on July 24, 2016. 

In a world where young people are creators and consumers of media, where they have to navigate thousands of images and advertisements and hidden agendas on a daily basis, we are obligated to equip them to understand and direct their own experiences.

Student agency can become a schoolwide norm through Student Led Conferences. With a little bit of systems thinking and strategic instruction around this practice, Thrive Public Schools has put students in the driver seat.

At Thrive, a blended learning school in central San Diego, parent conferences have been replaced by Student Led Conferences (SLC). At the conclusion of each grading period, students from grades TK through high school led collaborative meetings in which they review their individualized goals around literacy, numeracy and social emotional growth, examine work as indicators of progress toward goal and set next steps.

We know that good facilitation (even for adults) takes preparation and practice. Here’s how students at Thrive prepare for leading conferences on their own work: (more…)

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

August 24, 2016 by

What's NewiNACOL and CompetencyWorks are hosting a Special Edition Webinar to reflect on the field of K-12 competency education and explore emerging issues. This webinar is free to attend—register here to receive login instructions. Competency-based education experts Susan Patrick and Chris Sturgis will lead the discussion on important developments and trends across competency education. Join the webinar to help identify the field’s emerging issues and provide insights to inform the future direction of competency-based education.


  • Featured in Wired, New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy Charter School is radically changing how students learn through relationships, competencies, performance pay, and connection to the community.
  • The government in Rwanda launched competency-based curriculum to promote a learner-centered approach to teaching. Teachers, parents and students reflect on this change in this article.
  • In the spring of 2016, members from the Khan Academy spent a day in Lindsay Unified School District capturing their performance-based system in action. This video features students and learning facilitators on the positive impacts of performance-based learning.

Movement in Districts

  • Colorado’s District 51 hosted a two-day summit with 400 teachers and staff to learn more about performance-based learning. Fifth grade teacher Aubrey Hoffman said, “Now we’re seeing a foundational shift and that’s really exciting. Kids have taken so much control of their learning.”
  • Idaho’s Wilder School District, a rural school district with 470 students, is beginning the transition toward competency education, and is the first district in Canyon County to adopt this new system.


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9 Ways States Can Support Personalized, Competency-Based Education Systems

August 22, 2016 by

This post originally appeared at iNACOL on August 11, 2016. 

Creating an education system that prepares every student to succeed requires systemic transformation to high-quality, personalized, competency-based education.

Today, the prevailing traditional, one-size-fits-all K-12 education model, is not meeting the unique needs of learners. Too many students are falling through the cracks, not graduating or  graduating unprepared for success after high school.

School districts across the country are making incremental shifts to student-centered learning without state supports and policy flexibility. However, transformation at scale will require alignment of both policy and practice.

Before the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), state leaders had the authority to make room for districts to shift to a competency-based approach in significant ways. However, by removing federal policy barriers to aligning accountability, assessment, and teacher and leader development to student-centered learning, ESSA makes it possible for states to pursue a more comprehensive policy approach to supporting personalization at scale.

The graphic below shows the many different entry points for policymakers wishing to catalyze the shift to a personalized K-12 system.


States that do not yet have any enabling policies can get started by studying policy barriers and creating room for local innovation, while states that have already made progress may want to consider more comprehensive steps towards transformation.


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Student Voices: Moving Beyond “When I Grow Up…”

August 18, 2016 by

Student VoicesThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on July 25, 2016.

A major task for high schools today is to guide students toward postsecondary opportunities. In the best schools, a strong college and career office develops relationships with students and families, presenting them with possible postsecondary pathways and helping them secure opportunities that are a good fit.

But when should a school start this work? At Springpoint, we believe that strong school design includes a plan for college and career support even before freshmen step into the building. And students should be exposed to this in their very first year.

Equipping students to forge their own path is crucial given today’s rapidly shifting economy—according to one study, 40% of America’s workforce will be self-employed by 2020. So young people will increasingly need to independently seek out and take advantage of opportunities. We must enable them to connect their interests to possible career paths, and to develop relationships with leaders in their chosen field.

We spoke with a small group of enterprising, resourceful high school students about how they are leveraging in-school supports to forge a path toward their college and career goals. All of these students are enrolled in new, innovative high schools designed as part of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Opportunity by Design initiative. The initiative focuses on creating small, competency-based and student-centered school models. In addition to sharing their own stories, these students also had some advice for their peers.

At The Urban Assembly Maker Academy, Amanda, a rising junior, began to consider a career in communications after realizing she enjoys public speaking and mentoring others. Amanda told us, “I’m an extrovert,” and in response, her teachers and principal gave her opportunities to present at national conferences and act as an ambassador for the school. Last fall, Amanda presented on a panel about new school start-up at iNACOL’s annual symposium, and she has spoken about her school with leaders of Parsons School of Design. Amanda’s teachers have helped her collect these outreach experiences into a portfolio she can take to colleges. (more…)

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