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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Three Big Ah-Ha!s for Teachers New to Learner-Centered Proficiency-Based Education

August 5, 2016 by

BulbThat time of year is getting close! Some of us will be back with our students in a matter of days, some weeks. Without a doubt all of us are thinking about how we want to do things this year and starting to get our plans ready. Here are some of the biggest ideas I support teachers through when it comes to learner-centered proficiency-based education. Whether your district is working toward a vision of personalized learning, or you are a curious educator ready to redesign your class, take a think through:

  1. You Will Not Be Writing 25 Different Lesson Plans For Each Class

When some people hear “personalized learning” they immediately imagine a classroom in which twenty-five students are doing twenty-five different things. Twenty-five learners with different needs. Twenty-five learners with different interests. A teacher popping around from kid to kid and never teaching a whole class at once, ever again.

That will never happen in an effective learner-centered proficiency-based system. The odds of it happening in a lone personalized learning classroom are slim to non-existent. Why? Because they, and we, are humans. It is much more likely that in any given class, for any given set of procedural or declarative knowledge, there will be a small number of core groups with a sprinkling of outliers. Further, a teacher who has been practicing for at least three years likely has a good sense about what those different groups will be, in terms of understandings and skills. The same is true for student interests! We can all think of at least five different interest areas that will hook most of our students. Sports, animals, pets, dance, music, visual arts, video games, outdoors, cars, what else? Teachers knows these things about students, and it doesn’t change too drastically from year to year. I am not saying “you already do this” because there are some important differences between this kind of grouping and tracking. (more…)

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High Expectations at EPIC North

August 4, 2016 by
Rites of Passage

Students in EPIC North’s Rights of Passage program meet to support each other academically, socially, and personally.

This is the seventh post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. Start with the first post on NYC Big Takeaways and then read about NYC’s Mastery CollaborativeThe Young Woman’s Leadership School of Astoria, Flushing International, KAPPA International, and North Queens Community High School.

As with my first visit to EPIC North, the conversation started with students. I was thrilled to have the chance to talk with sophomores who now had a year and a half under their belts in a mastery-based school. In this post, I’ll review some of the main elements of the EPIC design – cultural relevance, project-based learning, competencies and attainments, and high expectations – while drawing upon the insights of students. (Check out the Epic Playbook for more information.)

Cultural Relevance

Competency-based or mastery-based education can be a powerful enabling force upon which to build cultural relevance. Cultural relevance, one of Epic Schools’ core elements, was a concept developed in the 1990s that “recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning.” Mastery-based education allows for students to co-design projects or have choice in how they demonstrate their learning. This is what personalizing education is all about.

However, cultural relevance reminds us that adults may not have the same life or cultural experiences as their students. Adults might not understand what is particularly meaningful or particularly demoralizing without first creating a way to have dialogue. This is particularly true when the race and ethnicity of the teachers are different than the student population. Cultural relevance requires us to go beyond the “golden rule” toward the “platinum rule” of seeking out what is important to other people rather than using our own culture and priorities as a starting point. Essentially this is what building relationships with students is all about – finding out what is important to them. (See the report Culturally Relevant Education (CRE) and the Framework for Great Schools, produced by the Expanding Success Initiative at the NYC DOE, for examples of culturally relevant practices drawn from schools.)

Epic North has developed a weekly Rites of Passage to support young people as they reflect on their lives and develop the attainments that are more related to adolescent development. I was invited to sit in on one of the teams, Brothers for Life (Rites of Passage have been broken into gender specific teams). One of the young men led a call and response for the code of cooperation they had created as the opening activity: (more…)

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Education Evolving

August 3, 2016 by


I had the opportunity to re-read Maine’s strategic plan Education Evolving, which was developed in 2012. The opening essay is so powerful and so beautifully written I just need to share it with the CompetencyWorks readers. I think it will definitely help all of you in districts and states that are developing communication strategies to explain why competency-based education is needed. When I read the core priorities at the end, I once again realized how visionary Maine’s Department of Education was at that time. 

The Case for Change

The Challenges We Face and a Way Forward

For generations, the educators in Maine’s public school system have worked tirelessly to meet the educational needs of the students in their care, and their unwavering effort has been evident. Maine’s schools routinely score highly in national rankings of educational outcomes and Maine people have a long history of strong support for their local schools.

However, a new age is upon us. Where our schools once needed to prepare young people for work in a predominantly natural resource-based economy of forestry, farming and fishing, they must now prepare students for a global economy in which many of the jobs of Maine’s past have become automated or moved offshore. Maine’s young people need an entirely new set of skills to succeed in an information-age economy where ideas and innovation move at the speed of light. These new skills are not just related to advances in technology, they are a product of the way society and business work and think: flatter organizations that require more independent thinking and problem-solving; collaboration with people and teams across the aisle and in offices around the globe; and more advanced critical thinking, even in jobs that once were considered manual labor and did not even require a high school degree.

This new age poses a series of challenges that will require us to not simply reform our schools, but to re-imagine them; to build on the successes of the past while creating a model of schooling for this new age.

Challenge 1: Our schools are struggling to accomplish what they need to accomplish


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North Queens Community High School: Blooming the Outcomes

August 2, 2016 by

Principal Winston McCarthy, Chris Sturgis of Competency Works, Lew Gitelman of reDesign, and teacher Martin Howfield at North Queens Community High School

This is the sixth post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. Start with the first post on NYC Big Takeaways and then read about NYC’s Mastery CollaborativeThe Young Woman’s Leadership School of Astoria, Flushing International, and KAPPA International.

Imagine my surprise as Lew Gitelman greeted me when we arrived at North Queens Community High School. Pure delight. Twenty years ago, Lew Gitelman, co-founder of Diploma Plus, which has been replicated in many schools across the country, was the first person to patiently walk me through what competency-based education looked like in a school and classroom. After lots of hugs and ear-to-ear grins, we got down to talking about mastery-based education at North Queens, a transfer school serving students who are over-aged and under-credited.

Spanish teacher Martin Howfield opened the conversation with, “We don’t frame learning in terms of passing and failing. We do growth. So mastery-based grading makes sense for our school and our students.” After piloting in two classrooms in the Spring of 2011, they decided to take the whole school to mastery-based learning the next fall. Gitelman, Co-Director of reDesign, has been working with the team to create a system that is aligned to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Principal Winston McCarthy explained, “We use a trajectory of learning based on Bloom’s to move kids to HOTS – higher order thinking skills.”

Blooming the Standards

“You can Bloom the standards. You can Bloom the learning outcomes,” enthused McCarthy. Gitelman expanded on this. “If we want students to be thinking about big ideas and using HOTS, how do we operationalize it?” he asked. “Bloom’s Taxonomy captures the thinking skills students would need and a path to move from lower level to higher level skills. This isn’t just about meeting or exceeding a standard. We want our students to be able to understand the level of thinking they are applying to a problem.”

By aligning around Bloom’s Taxonomy, North Queens is prioritizing students’ development of skills and strategies to solve problems, rather than prioritizing content. The content in each discipline is integrated into skill-building. However, operating in the archaic Regents system that requires students to know about the Byzantine Empire in order to graduate means there are times this doesn’t lead to the voice and choice that is so helpful in motivating and engaging students. (Shame, shame on the New York Regents. It’s time they upgrade their high-stakes assessments to be aligned with learning sciences and adolescent development.) (more…)

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Organizational Position Matters

August 1, 2016 by

DeskIs competency-based education just for high schools or is it what you want for your entire K-12 system?

States and districts need to think about this question early on – what is the end goal? It is easy for state policymakers and districts to interpret that the policy for proficiency-based diplomas only applies to high schools. New Hampshire’s first step was to change time-based credits in secondary schools to competency-based followed by regulatory changes for the entire education system, from kindergarten through graduation.

Districts might respond by placing the leadership for the conversion to competency-based education with someone overseeing high schools, such as an office of post-secondary readiness. If states have the leadership placed in a department that oversees high schools, it sends a clear message that it competency education is a high school reform.

The problem with doing this is two-fold: (more…)

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July CompetencyWorks Catch-Up

July 31, 2016 by

Rethinking the Achievement Gap (Part 2)

July 29, 2016 by

This post originally appeared at Next Generation Learning Challenges on March 28, 2016 and the Workshop School on March 21, 2016. See Part 1 here

I didn’t really know it at the time, but this graph would change the way I thought about the achievement gap.


Before opening the Workshop School, for two years we ran a small pilot project called the Sustainability Workshop. It was basically an alternative senior year program. We enrolled about 30 seniors a year from three neighborhood high schools, and ran them through an intensive one-year, project-based experience. To assess students’ learning at the end of the year, we administered the College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA).

CWRA is the only standardized test I’ve ever seen that I really like. Basically, students are given a real-world problem scenario and a library of documents, data sets, etc. Their challenge is to come up with and articulate solutions to the scenario. Their “performance task score” is a measure of their ability to think critically and solve problems. Since the tasks involve making sense of numbers and writing out answers, CWRA controls for what it calls “entering academic ability” – basically the type of literacy and math skills that the SAT requires. (more…)

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KAPPA International: The Story of Angelica

July 28, 2016 by

Principal Panorea Panagiosoulis and students at KAPPA International High School

This is the fifth post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. Start with the first post on NYC Big Takeaways and then read about NYC’s Mastery CollaborativeThe Young Woman’s Leadership School of Astoria, and Flushing International.

Story of Angelica

Angelica was a model student at KAPPA International. She had a good attitude, did her homework, always went for the extra credit, participated in class, and had a 90 in all of her classes. But then she failed the Earth Science Regents Exam. Assistant Principal Andy Clayman said, “We had been lying to Angelica. Her good grades were giving her misinformation about how she was doing. She is the kind of student who would do anything we asked. She needed to be working on her gaps in knowledge. But we weren’t giving her the information or the opportunity she needed. It was a lightbulb moment for us.” (It’s worth watching this video to directly hear from Angelica and the team at KAPPA.)

So began KAPPA International’s journey to mastery-based learning.

It was a journey to a focus on learning, not requirements. Principal Panorea Panagiosoulis, who goes by Penny, explained, “Our students are very good at identifying what the state wants as far as minimum requirements. But we wanted to bring the focus back on learning. Instead of focusing on forty-four credits, we wanted students to be thinking about the skills and knowledge to be successful when they leave here.” Clayman expanded with, “It was a huge pedagogical shift to only focus on mastery in a student’s grade and to begin to work intentionally on building their work habits. We are seeking better and faster ways to help students develop their work habits because the connection between the habits and learning is so strong.”

Bridging the Gaps, Tightening the Curriculum

KAPPA has an interesting story. They launched in 2007 as an International Baccalaureate (IB) program because of the strong pedagogy and the dynamic role of assessment. Clayman explained, “AP exams focus on what the students don’t know as much as what they do know. But how much can you tell from an essay and multiple choice in a three-hour exam? The IB program gave students opportunities to show what they know and build the skills they would need to do well in college.” The curriculum of six academic areas, foreign language, and the arts – regardless of whether students passed and received the IB curriculum or the NYC diploma – would position students to compete for college admissions. (more…)

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Get the Culture Right: The Most Important New School Factor

July 27, 2016 by

GS1This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on June 28, 2016.

“Attend to your culture,” said Jim May who supports about 25 new schools each year for New Tech Network. “From certificates of occupancy to emergency plans to hiring, the list of operational realities that must be addressed when starting a new school is immense. Thus, it can be easy to overlook the importance of your staff and student culture during those early days. However, it is imperative that even amidst the swirl of starting the school that you are intentional about establishing a strong set of cultural norms and rituals that can animate your work in the coming year.”

What’s most important when opening a new school? I asked 20 experts who have collectively opened more than a thousand schools. They shared 70 hard-won lessons and it’s clear that getting the culture right is the single most important factor in the long-term success of a school.

Opening a great school is an enormously complicated project. It involves real estate, construction, financing, logistics and marketing, which most educators don’t initially know anything about.

“Most of us who want to start schools because we like instruction, but the one thing no one tells us is that when you start a school, 90% of what who do early on has nothing to do with instruction,” said Dr. Nicole Assisi, Thrive Public Schools, who has opened five southern California schools. (more…)

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What’s New in K-12 Competency Education?


What's NewNews

Thought Leadership

  • By moving to a competency-based learning system, we can naturally embed the development of grit in students, as explained by Michael Horn in this article.
  • Thomas Arnett describes how technology alone does not yield sustainable improvements in student learning outcomes. It is about redesigning models and shifting instructional practices first, then applying new technologies to enable personalized learning at scale.
  • How can better community and stakeholder engagement support innovation and deeper learning? CCSSO’s Joey Hunziker shares how states should define clear state/local roles in decision-making under ESSA.
  • In this Mind/Shift KQED article, Katrina Schwartz makes the case for aligning school discipline practices with a school’s learning philosophy.

Grading & Assessment

  • Here are 3 ways performance-based assessments address 3 important critiques of standardized assessments.
  • The Washington Post recently published an article criticizing schools shifting toward no-zero grading policies. Julia Freeland Fisher penned a response to this article, describing how students can be held to high standards with the right amount of supports through carefully designed and thoughtfully implemented competency education.

Innovative Practices

  • Maine’s Lewiston Schools are offering summer camps, as an alternative to summer school, with hands-on learning and weekly field trips allowing students to experience what they’ve studied in the classroom.
  • At the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar, high school students described how student-directed learning inspire curiosity and spur motivation.
  • Bronx Arena is trying to reach high-needs students by replacing the traditional classroom with personalized, competency-based learning.
  • Maine’s Casco Bay High School lets students develop their skills and passions simultaneously through their proficiency-based education system.
  • After moving to a proficiency-based program, more than 180 of Frisco ISD’s students received national accolades for the 2016 National Spanish Examinations.
  • In Massachusetts, a consortium of 9 districts are teaming up to develop a new assessment model that includes multiple measures of student progress and school quality.
  • Badging is one way to provide evidence of mastery across a wide variety of disciplines and scenarios that can allow learning to take place anywhere and at any time. This article looks at the current state of badging in K-12 education and explores potential obstacles and promising practices.


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