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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A Better Way Forward for Competency-Based Learning

October 26, 2016 by

pencilsThis post originally appeared at New Profit on September 29, 2016. 

Over two decades ago, I served as an educational advocate for the State of Rhode Island. It was my charge to act as the parent for a caseload of about 80 youth who were wards of the State that either identified or were suspected of having special educational needs. My caseload was very diverse. Students had serious learning disabilities and/or behavioral issues. As wards of the State most were living in poverty and the majority came from what are often called minority groups. Despite the wide array of challenges, I ensured that the adolescents in my caseload all earned, and were granted, their high school diploma. This, despite the fact that these students often had not learned the things our society expects of a high school graduate. How was this possible?

The reliance on seat time for awarding course credit allows for any student who passes a class that meets for the required 120 hours of instruction to earn credit toward graduation. The 120-hour requirement was established by the Carnegie Foundation for Teaching over a century ago and still governs what a high school diploma entails in nearly every state in the union. Typically, students are required to pass 20-28 courses in order to earn their high school diploma. As an advocate for youth in State care, I made sure that schools were paying attention to each student’s transcript and awarding him/her the credits earned through sitting in class.

Did I do these students more harm than good? Over the past 20 years, I have pondered that question often. I was complicit in sending adolescents out into society with a diploma that didn’t necessarily reflect whether they had mastered the requisite education to become functioning adults in a democratic society. Despite my well-meaning advocacy, was I setting them up for failure? (more…)

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#iNACOL16 Day One Learnings on the Run

October 25, 2016 by

Renee Hill

As you wander the huge halls of the San Antonio Convention Center, you can’t help but bump into old friends, people you wanted to meet, or people you didn’t even realize you need to meet. And each conversation has at least one “AH-HA” that moves understanding forward, deeper, or into altogether new directions.

How Districts Can Use Competency-Based Education Infrastructure Enables More Autonomy and Creativity in School Design: I was thrilled to bump into Renee Hill, Assistant Superintendent at Riverside Public Schools in California. They’ve been moving toward personalization with the assumption that schools need autonomy and room for creativity (as compared to a district model that is implemented in all schools). They are now putting into place the infrastructure of a shared vision of a portrait of a graduate from Riverside and beginning to build the set of competencies/standards that will be shared graduation expectations. Eventually, they will have an infrastructure that will enable school autonomy balanced with a system of accountability to ensure students are making progress and reaching proficiency.


Andrea Mulkey

Moving from Negotiated Alignment to Systemic Alignment: I also had the opportunity to meet Andrea Mulkey, National Director of Early College at KnowledgeWorks. We had an interesting conversation about how early college programs have always had to figure out how to align secondary and post-secondary expectations. However, instead of a defined set of competencies and standards, they’ve done it through well-developed relationships and negotiations.

This got me thinking – we need to get to the point where districts aren’t creating graduation expectations in isolation but actually developing them with colleges. This is going to be one of the key pieces of system-building. With our strong commitment to local control, I’ve been worried that variability in district graduation expectations will continue to be a problem. But it’s not a problem if we set the expectation that institutions of higher education have to sign off on how districts define what it means to be college ready. Think about it – colleges are going to want to set the same set of expectations across multiple districts. (more…)

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Creating a Common Language of Learning: Rubrics and Calibration


booksThis is the twelfth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders. In this article, we continue to explore questions that districts consider when creating their instruction and assessment model.

How will you know students are learning and what they need to reach proficiency?

As districts are designing the structure of learning, they are also thinking about assessment. Doug Penn, district principal at Chugach School District, points out, “We need to always know the purpose of assessment. It is to help students and the teacher understand what students know and what they don’t know, and to provide insights into the steps that are needed to learn it. Too often, assessment is used as a hammer and a gateway. For us, we see it as a process of helping students get from don’t know to knowing.”

Thus, as teachers develop the learning objectives, they also consider how they will structure rubrics to provide meaningful feedback as well as determine that students have met appropriate levels of knowledge. The process of creating norms about what proficiency means at each unit of learning and determining when students should advance to the next academic level depends on four things: clear criteria or rubrics, calibration, assessment literacy, and quality control mechanisms. In the initial years, the primary focus tends to be on rubrics and calibration. Districts and schools invest in strengthening assessment literacy, specifically building capacity for formative and performance-based assessment, and design quality control mechanisms at a later date.


In the early days of the transition to competency-based education, many schools continue to rely on students taking tests and getting a number of the answers right. Over time, however, they increasingly turn to rubrics that provide more in-depth insight into how students are advancing toward proficiency. There are many ways these are structured—some indicate progress (emerging, proficient, beyond proficiency), while others are highly aligned with the knowledge taxonomy (recall, comprehension, analysis, knowledge utilization). Teachers may also take the language and create their own variations with student-friendly language or engage their students in creatively naming the levels of the rubric. (more…)

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Creating a Common Language of Learning: A Continuum of Learning

October 24, 2016 by

blocksThis is the eleventh article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders. In this article, we continue to explore questions that districts consider when creating their instruction and assessment model.

How will learning targets and curriculum be organized within the structure?

Once a district has established what the structure will be, the next step is to organize the content areas or domains into the structure or a continuum of learning. The task at hand is to create a learning continuum for each domain that has been determined as important to graduation expectations, stretching from K through 12, with a clear indication of what it means to advance upon mastery. In thinking about the definitional elements of competency education, this is where districts create a transparent set of explicit and measurable learning objectives and a system of assessments that are designed to advance student learning.

The process of developing the learning continuum, defined as an aligned set of standards and rubrics, can be designed as embedded professional development. Working in groups, teachers unpack standards, share student work, and write the standards in user-friendly language. While a vital step, this can also become an overly iterative process when the focus turns to getting every word right rather than building a shared understanding, holding deep conversations about learning progressions that describe how students move from one concept to the next, and building assessment literacy. Schools may develop and review rubrics simultaneously or as a subsequent step. (The topic of rubrics and calibrating the determination of proficiency is discussed separately in the next article.)

Something to Think About: Districts should set the goal as creating continuums of learning across elementary and secondary schools, not just as segments for each grade level. It is important to think about vertical alignment. Once teachers have organized the learning continuums, be prepared for frustration that curriculum isn’t designed well for the competency-based classroom. Publishers create curricular resources on specific grade levels, with different products for elementary, middle, and high school. Thus, a teacher in seventh grade trying to teach students with gaps at the fourth- or fifth-grade level may not have any resources within the middle school curriculum or be familiar with the elementary school curriculum. As a partial solution, Adams 50 turned to an open source curriculum, Progressive Math Initiative from the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning.



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CompetencyWorks Meet Up Tuesday October 25th at 6 pm

October 21, 2016 by

meet-upAre you going to iNACOL16 in San Antonio? Then come over to the CompetencyWorks Meet-Up from 6-7 during the President’s Reception. We are to the right of  the main entrance into the reception area (and once I see where it is, I’ll tweet out more information). This is the best chance to meet your colleagues from across the country.

The best thing to do is just walk right up and introduce yourself. Or if you want a little help, I’m 5 feet tall, fifty-six years old, and have messy gray hair. Find me and I’ll help you meet your new colleagues.

I’m reprinting highlights of the competency education strand in case it’s helpful to you to organize your schedule. (more…)

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What’s New in K-12 Competency Education?

October 20, 2016 by

What's NewVirgel Hammonds of KnowledgeWorks explains the difference between traditional and competency education. You can watch the video to learn more.


  • Clark County School District in Las Vegas will open the nation’s first Marzano Academy, adopting strategies from Dr. Robert Marzano (co-founder of Colorado-based Marzano Research).
  • Lindsay Unified Public Schools, a rural, public school in California’s Central Valley, is hoping to share its competency-based approach and change management practices.

State Updates

  • The U.S. Education Department approved the extension of New Hampshire’s competency-based assessment pilot.
  • The Maine Cohort for Customized Learning and Thomas College’s Center for Innovation in Education held a one-day summit to provide teachers with a statewide opportunity to share and collaborate, problem solve and create new action steps to address the largest implementation issues.
  • Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states have a historic opportunity to redesign systems of assessments and rethink accountability to support personalized learning. This article explores how Virginia is moving toward next generation accountability and and performance assessments.
  • Illinois is developing a new state plan under ESSA, the new federal K-12 education law.
  • Westminster Public Schools in Colorado began implementing competency education in 2009. This article explores how competency education is at odds with Colorado’s statewide accountability system.

School Updates

  • Deer-Isle Stonington Elementary School is adopting a proficiency-based grading system, which the high school is already working with (read more about Deer-Isle Stonington’s High School here).
  • In this article, Michael Horn explores the inputs and outcomes in credit recovery at LA Unified.
  • America Heritage (Idaho Falls) is embracing mastery-based education as one of 20 statewide “incubators” or pilots aimed at providing mastery-based education to students in 2016-17.
  • California’s Del Lago Academy created a competency-based approach which allows students to collect badges to prove their skills to colleges and employers, reinforcing the pipeline to college and career.
  • Superintendent of RSU5 in Maine, Dr. Becky Foley, explains the shift toward student-centered learning in their district as they continue to implement competency education from PreK-12. 


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What Is Competency Education?

October 19, 2016 by

From KnowledgeWorks

There are lots of ways that the intermediary organizations working on competency education have been catalytic in supporting districts and schools. Communication has not been one of our strengths. Education leaders have been engaging their communities around the country on the need for a new way of organizing schools. And they’ve been doing it without adequate tools.

Part of the reason we don’t have effective tools is that many organizations try to simplify competency education into flexible pacing. They use phrases such as “students advance based on mastery of a given content, rather than based on credits or seat time.” This emphasis on pace misses the point entirely – competency education is a structure designed to ensure that students are learning and making progress. Accountability is embedded within the system through transparent, calibrated ways to determine proficiency and ensure that students are building and able to apply a wide range of skills (competency, not just standards). This emphasis on pace has created a new problem for us — people who are concerned about ineffective use of online learning have now targeted competency education as well.

Well, thanks to KnowledgeWorks, we’ve had a major breakthrough. They’ve created a video that describes a competency-based school with personalized support. They’ve done it with warmth, light-heartedness, attention to challenging racial stereotypes, and the inclusion of real teachers and real students. It’s the best I’ve seen and I think will be helpful to education leaders.

We at CompetencyWorks also tried to fill the gap of a lack of a primer on competency education. In the most recent paper Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England, we included a more extensive introduction to competency education with a section on why the traditional system is a barrier to greater equity and higher achievement. We produced the excerpt What Is Competency Education? separately for educators to use in discussions. (more…)

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Constructing a Common Language of Learning

October 18, 2016 by

Art SuppliesThis is the tenth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders. In this article, we continue to explore questions that districts consider when creating their instruction and assessment model.

What are the explicit and measureable learning objectives to describe what students need to learn on their way toward meeting the graduation goals?

Districts and schools start with a different mixture of concepts and create a variety of structures to define the learning continuum. It is important to take your overall pedagogical approach into consideration when shaping the overarching competencies. As Kim Carter, founder of Making Connections Charter School, explains, “Designing competency frameworks is a creative process. We gather together the tools we will need the same way a painter might choose brushes and paints.” For ELA and mathematics, most turn to the well-developed Common Core continuum of learning or their state standards. Others will start or embed the essentials of a discipline, asking, “What does it mean to be a mathematician, a historian, a writer, a scientist?” Still others may be designed around themes or career pathways that rely on a structure that starts with the needs of industry. In some cases, states may have even already set a broad framework within which districts and schools can further structure their learning.

There are five components that guide this work:

  1. Knowledge Taxonomy
  2. Structure and Characteristics
  3. Developing the Continuum of Learning
  4. Rubrics and Calibration
  5. Habits of Learning


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Configuring the Instruction and Assessment Model

October 17, 2016 by

Clay HandsThis is the ninth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

There are several design decisions that need to be made to create a common language of learning, especially in the context of the district’s overall pedagogical approach and belief about motivation and learning. In addition to districts engaging the community in the process of developing a shared purpose and guiding principles, there are four core questions educators will need to drive the design and operations of any competency-based system:

  • What do you want students to know and be able to do?
  • Why is this objective important?
  • How are you going to know if students have learned it?
  • What are you going to do if they don’t (or they do)?

This article and the next four articles in the series will walk through the design decisions that will need to be made to answer the questions above. At this point in the development of competency education, there is no best model. Districts and schools are making decisions based on a number of considerations, including the availability of technology to support student learning.

Establishing Overarching Competencies and Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirements

What are the overall sets of skills, content, and traits you expect students to have upon graduation?

The initial work to determine the desired skills, content, and traits is done in partnership with community conversations. Later, districts facilitate conversations with their educators to further develop the goals for their students. Those districts that have fully engaged their communities often have shared purposes that are broader than the current policy of “college and career ready.” The focus tends to be more on lifelong learners and preparing students for life. Thus, the set of learning continuums—the expectations for what students will be able to know and do—is much more comprehensive than just academic disciplines.

Determining what a proficiency-based diploma means as opposed to one founded on time-based credits that have little meaning (and that require so many students to take remediation once they start college) is not an easy process. Is it a floor that everyone reaches and can go beyond? Is it a ceiling at which you have completed high school? Is there a point that it becomes personalized based on student goals? (more…)

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Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: The Perennial Homework Question

October 14, 2016 by

mathThis post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on September 29, 2016. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

Just the other day a colleague sent me a note saying “please post about homework!” I can’t say I’m surprised, the homework question is one of the perennial questions in education; I even wrote about it last year. And like a stubborn weed, it spawns and shoots many other questions:

  • How much homework should students have?
  • Is homework for practice or learning?
  • Is it fair to assign homework that relies on internet access?
  • What is the purpose of homework?
  • How does homework count, if at all?
  • Does everyone have to do the same homework?

The truth is that despite all of the research compiling on the effectiveness of homework, the answer is a big thorny “depends.” Under the right conditions, homework can be a fantastic support for learners moving ahead and growing with their skills and knowledge. Under the wrong conditions, homework can actually be detrimental to learning. In a learner-centered proficiency-based culture, the homework weed can be even more noxious and thorny. We need to be considering the right conditions for every learner, every day.

If we step back and think about homework through the lens of personalized learning, we can come to some clarity around homework in our schools. Here are some questions to ask yourself about homework, and some resources to help you tame this weed. (more…)

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