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 I Learned From My Daughter’s First “C”

September 22, 2015 by

CThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on September 15, 2015.

It’s no secret that I’m an advocate for competency-based learning models. I’ve gone on the record lots of times as just that. I shared my thoughts on Montessori education as one of the original competency-based models and until very recently, I had two daughters who were learning in competency-based, Montessori learning environments.

This year our third grade daughter transitioned from the only formal learning environment she’s ever known–a no-grades, no-desks, pick-your-own-work Montessori classroom–to a gifted, STEM magnet in a large traditional urban school district.

We really sweated the transition, but it’s been mostly a breeze for us and our daughter. She bounces off to school every day, even though she has to get up more than a full hour earlier. She dutifully and cheerfully does her nightly (much more challenging) homework. She tells stories about how funny her teachers are and every day she mentions a new friend. She’s learning new things in new ways and even described her new school as “more like a Learning Camp” than a classroom.

In other words, all signs point to “happy, thriving, learning child.” So, why on earth did I let one grade, her first “C,” totally shift my perception of how she was doing in her new school? (more…)

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A Conversation with Buddy Berry in Eminence Kentucky

September 21, 2015 by

eminenceI had a chance to visit Kentucky last month when I participated in a meeting of the Kentucky Valley Education Cooperative/University of Kentucky Next Generation Leaders Academy. Before I headed south to Hazard, I veered north to visit Eminence School District, one of the ten innovation districts.

Eminence is a small, rural district of about 850 students located forty miles east of Louisville. Superintendent Buddy Berry is a fourth generation alumni of Eminence. Five years ago, Eminence was facing declining enrollment and funding. Since they have started down this path to personalization, the tide has turned and enrollment has nearly doubled.

Eminence is taking a different path toward competency education than other districts I have visited, so for us to have a meaningful conversation, Berry and I first had to spend a bit of time unpacking the language of personalization, standards-based, competency-based, mastery, and proficiency, as they can easily become buzz words that lose their distinct meaning. Once we got ourselves comfortable with the language each of us was using, we had a tremendous conversation. Here are a few of the highlights.

Starting with Students: Berry explained that to launch their effort, they wanted to create a culture where staff listened to students and students had a sense of agency that they could shape the world around them. They organized focus groups of fifteen students and interviewed every student in the district, asking them to share what they didn’t like about school and what they wanted it to be. Based on the specific feedback they received—such as limited choice, no opportunity to feel really challenged, and lack of technology—the district made a number of changes: expanded electives, additional AP and honors courses, and laptops students could check out in the library.

Berry identified two important lessons learned through this process. First, student agency isn’t just about listening to students. After students realized they were being given a voice, they brought out every complaint, expecting the adults in the system to fix it. Thus they jumped from empowerment to entitlement. Eminence took a step back and set the expectation that everyone is part of the solution. Students could still bring forth problems, but they also had to bring ideas for how to solve them. (more…)

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Meet Five New Opportunity by Design High Schools

September 17, 2015 by

SpringPointWe’re thrilled to support five new, mastery-based Opportunity by Design high schools opening their doors to students this fall. This brings the number of Springpoint Opportunity by Design schools to ten, serving more than 5,000 students over the next four years.

These schools were designed in partnership with Springpoint through a year-long planning process as a part of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Opportunity by Design initiative. While each school is unique, they were all designed based on Carnegie Corporation of New York’s 10 Design Principles for effective secondary school models.

Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD), with Denver Public Schools, will offer project-based learning, internship opportunities, and early participation in the college experience. The school’s curriculum focuses on cognitive skill development and STEM through meaningful projects, collaborative learning experiences and real-world application. Students will advance upon demonstrated mastery of competencies. Learn more on DSISD’s website, Facebook and Twitter.

360 High School is a student-centered model in the Providence Public School District, which will provide 360 degrees of support for students. It focuses on personalized, empowering learning opportunities for students. This school was designed through a robust community-based process, with working groups comprised of local students, teachers, parents and community members. Learn more on Facebook and Twitter. See the video below for more on the school’s model, and read our interview with Principal Kerry Tuttlebee and Teacher/Facilitator Chris Audette here. (more…)

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Competency-Based Learning Assessments Coming Soon to North Carolina?

September 16, 2015 by

NCWe were delighted to see that the North Carolina budget conference report published yesterday indicated their interest in competency-based education. As I understand it, there is no budget attached to their intent to transition to a “system of testing and assessments” for K12 that “utilizes competency-based learning assessments.” As you can see from the text from the report below, they are using the five part working definition of competency education to define the system.


SECTION 8.12.(a) It is the intent of the General Assembly to transition to a system of testing and assessments applicable for all elementary and secondary public school students that utilizes competency-based learning assessments to measure student performance and student growth, whenever practicable. The competency-based student assessment system should provide that (i) students advance upon mastery, (ii) competencies are broken down into explicit and measurable learning objectives, (iii) assessment is meaningful for students, (iv) students receive differentiated support based on their learning needs, and (v) learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include the application and creation of knowledge.

SECTION 8.12.(b) In order to develop the use of competency-based assessments for all elementary and secondary public school students in North Carolina in accordance with subsection (a) of this section, the State Board of Education is encouraged to evaluate the feasibility of integrating competency-based assessments for use in local school administrative units and as part of the statewide testing system for measuring student performance and student growth. The State Board may examine competency-based student assessment systems utilized in other states, including potential benefits and obstacles to implementing similar systems in North Carolina, and the relationship between competency-based assessments and innovative teaching methods utilized in North Carolina schools, such as blended learning models and digital teaching tools.

We’ll share more information on North Carolina’s interest in competency education as we gather it.

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It’s Time for Mid-Course Corrections in K-12 Competency-Based Education

September 15, 2015 by

RocketOur reflection on how the field of competency-based education is developing has resulted in a number of emails raising other concerns and opportunities. It’s clear to me that there are at least four issues that need more attention and discussion…and likely mid-course corrections if we are going to get this right.

Failure is Not an Option: When Susan Patrick and I wrote the scan of competency-based education, we had used the title Failure is Not an Option to capture the spirit of competency education. That’s right, equity was at the very heart of competency education, where rather than have an open system in which students can be passed on with Cs and Ds (or even drop out before graduating), we would develop a closed system in which the system itself changes when students aren’t learning. However, a very silly organization that had trademarked the phrase Failure is not an Option sicced their lawyers on us, and we didn’t want to boogie with such a goofy gang of folks (the phrase has been used for a book about Apollo 13). So we used Success is the Only Option instead, but it’s just not as effective a phrase to get the big idea of what competency education really is. The result is that most conversations are about pace and flexibility rather than how we need to redesign the infrastructure and schools so that failure really and truly isn’t an option.

Mid-Course Correction: Start the conversation with what it will take for us to have every low-income student, every student with a disability, every child regardless of the color of their skin, and every student learning English for the first time learn, thrive, and soar. Pace and flexibility will come naturally out of that conversation. But if you start with flexible pace first, you miss the big idea of what competency education is all about. (more…)

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It’s Time to Vote…So Someone Can Win $100,000 from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation

September 14, 2015 by

voteStudents at the Center is hosting the Lawrence W. O’Toole Award, “given out each year to an individual, organization, school or district exhibiting great leadership through innovation or courage in moving student-centered approaches to learning forward in New England. The winner will receive a $100,000 grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.”

It’s a great group of people, districts, and organizations doing great work. Two of the nominees are recognized for their work in competency education. Readers of CompetencyWorks will be delighted to see Sanborn Regional School District on the list of nominees for its leadership in competency-based education. (You can get a chance to talk with their leadership team directly at the pre-conference workshop Implementing Competency Education: Insights from Local Leaders at the iNACOL Symposium.) Molly Heath is a teacher at Burlington High School, and is recognized for her development of proficiency-based approaches within the classroom.

Two of the nominees specialize in engagement of youth – Pious Ali from Portland Empowered (who also specializes in community engagement) and Youth on Board. We know that this expertise is instrumental in re-shaping school districts to embrace the values of competency-based systems, including developing student agency. Shawn Rubin from the Highlander Institute is recognized for his expertise in blended learning. Finally, the Hartford Journalism & Media Academy has been nominated for its community partnerships and emphasis on deeper learning.

Time to cast your vote!

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Charting the Future of Competency-Based Education Policy

September 10, 2015 by

ChartingThis post originally appeared at the Clayton Christensen Institute on September 8, 2015.

A few weeks ago, during a webinar hosted by the Northeast College and Career Readiness Research Alliance, New Hampshire’s Deputy Commissioner of Education Paul Leather outlined his state’s strategy in order to continue to develop competency-based education approaches. Leather is a leader in the world of competency-based education policy and his current efforts mark an important harbinger of how these policies must evolve over time.

Those looking to expand competency-based education should take note: not once did Leather mention the word “seat-time.”

Although New Hampshire’s bold mandate in 2005 eliminated the Carnegie Unit from the state’s high school graduation requirements, a decade later Leather’s concept of statewide competency-based policy goes far beyond eradicating the credit hour. Rather, Leather and his colleagues are working on building out pilot projects and systems of support that will usher in new school models centered on a wholly new vision of education that includes (1) competency-based pathways, (2) performance assessment, (3) learning pathways and (4) dynamic grading. Some of the state’s initiatives to build this new model are included in 2Revolution’s latest detailed report on New Hampshire, New Hampshire Goes First: A Vision to Scale Competency-Based Education across a PreK-20 System.

New Hampshire’s example should caution state policymakers against taking too simple a view of competency-based reforms. Too often, we talk about competency-based education as a one-off effort, a tweak to the existing system. Frequently, indeed, we talk about competency-based education as a thing that education officials can adopt, rather than a new philosophy that will touch every aspect of an education system. (more…)

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What’s New in K-12 Competency Education?

September 9, 2015 by

A documentary titled “Most Likely to Succeed is premiering at the 2015 Sundance Festival. This trailer discusses grades, and this short video clip highlights students creating innovative projects and authentic assessments. Chris Sturgis provides commentary on this documentary in this blog post.

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  • This article provides an overview of the information management tool called Slate, which provides data-driven support to teachers, powering them with the information to provide immediate supports to students in real-time.
  • Most conversations in the education sphere revolve around ensuring students are ready for college and career. This article flips the conversation and asks if our colleges are student-ready.
  • In Pittsburgh, digital badges find their niche through a community effort made possible through the support of Pittsburgh City of Learning. Five thousand learners streamed into 100 (mostly free) summer programs, including digital media programs, drop-in maker spaces, and paid internships, recording their work through badging.
  • California’s Lindsay Unified School District has eliminated grades and grade levels. This article provides an overview of Lindsay’s design, discusses the transition for stakeholders, and explores the changing grading system.

Movement in the States

  • Idaho is moving away from seat time and towards a mastery-based system through HB 110, which was signed into law on March 19, 2015 by Governor Otter, and the law took effect on July 1.
  • Ohio began the piloting process for competency education, made possible through HB 64, which allows five selected applicants to plan and implement competency-based programs during the pilot’s duration (2015-16 through 2018-19 school years).
  • This Op/Ed article by David Kelley provides a wonderful overview of the history of Vermont K-12 education, including bold initiatives toward revolutionary change through personalized learning plans and proficiency-based learning.
  • Nebraska’s State Board of Education started a new study committee on competency education. The first task assigned to the Board is to define competency-based education.
  • Connecticut passed legislation five years ago in an effort to boost high school graduation requirements, including higher standards in mathematics, science and foreign language, among others. Implementation has been delayed due to funding issues, and some say the legislation is now outdated because more credits does not equate to higher standards.

Helpful Resources



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