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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Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Steps to Grow Learner Autonomy

December 21, 2016 by

suppliesThis post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on December 9, 2016. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

Choice in learning is an essential element of the Applied Learning philosophy. When learners have a say in the what, where, when, and how of their learning both engagement and autonomy flourish. Sometimes when we start thinking through choice in the learning environment our minds swing to the extremes. We imagine a place where the learners direct everything.

How successful our learners are with directing their own learning depends greatly on the supports we put in place, and then take away, as learners gain skills and confidence. Here is a sequence of steps to take with learners who are just beginning to take on the responsibility for their own learning-related decision making. This step system will work well during the input and processing phases of the learning process.

  1. Two Choices, Repeat Tomorrow: Offer learners the choice between two activities or resources to interact with. Both choices should be clearly connected to learning targets and/or foundational knowledge. Repeat the choices again the next class day. Support learners to keep track of their choice for day 1, so they can independently move on the other option. Some ways to do this:
  • Make a T chart on the board with the choice options, and have students put sticky notes with their names on the day 1 choice.
  • Give them a very simple work planner, or goal setting sheet
  • Put popsicle sticks with learner names in cups for choice 1 and choice 2


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Continuous Improvement and Innovation

December 20, 2016 by

old-ladyThis is the twenty-fourth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

It is no surprise that Chugach School District received the Malcom Baldridge National Quality Award in its seventh year after creating a performance-based system. Competency education creates the conditions for continuous improvement and mutual accountability in managing school operations. When the only data is attendance and A-F grading scales, districts do not have access to data that allows them to track student progress in learning. With the rich data produced in competency education, schools can drive towards what Marzano Research refers as “high reliability” schools—schools that are able to continue to reflect upon their own performance and adjust to better meet the needs of students.

There is a tremendous shift for leaders to move from compliance to continuous improvement. Compliance has an inherent element of fulfilling specific requirements where continuous improvement reaches for the stars. Oliver Grenham explained that at Adams 50, they discovered there was no middle ground. They were “all-in or nothing” because the shift to competency education requires a totally different paradigm. He compared it to that visual game in which you can see an old woman or you can see a young woman, but you can’t see both at the same time. For district and school leaders, this means having to learn about continuous improvement management techniques early in the transition, even before the data may be fully available. There is simply no way to revert back to compliance management strategies after a second order change. The culture of learning expands to become a culture of continuous improvement with a focus on results.

Continuous improvement in this context is a formal methodology or a system to improve performance through reflecting upon data, engaging stakeholders in discussions about variation or low performance, planning for targeted improvements, and then repeating the cycle. Many districts use an easy to use process of Plan-Check- Act-Do to manage improvements. There are other techniques, as well, such as implementing quality controls or benchmarking against other organizations to seek out and adopt best practices. (more…)

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January 11th Webinar: Advancing Competency Education in New England

December 19, 2016 by

2016-snapshot-of-cbe-state-policy_timestampCompetencyWorks is hosting a Leadership webinar on advancing competency education in New England on Wednesday, January 11, 2:00-3:00 p.m. ET. We’ll summarize the findings from Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England and share insights into how to advance competency education. This is an invaluable opportunity for anyone working at the state level to think about the overall strategy for change. Presenters: Paul Leather, New Hampshire Department of Education; David Ruff, Great Schools Partnership; Chris Sturgis, MetisNet, CompetencyWorks. Register here.

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Three Ways Districts Stumble in Implementation


growthThis is the twenty-third article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

How are you preparing for the implementation dip?

There is likely to be an implementation dip during transition years. After the initial work is done, confusion tends to rise and achievement scores may go down. The question is, how fast can districts get beyond the dip and embrace the new practices?

Pittsfield invested heavily in preparation and engaging the community, and then implemented the redesign in one year. It was a challenging year of “ripping off the Band-Aid.” But when they came back in September of the next school year, they were all going in the same direction and were ready to begin refining and enhancing their student-centered approach. Building in a late start Wednesday for teachers to meet made the implementation year manageable.

Chugach solidified the school board and district leadership commitment to a long-term strategy and created an intentional communication strategy that reinforced the idea that the system transformation will take several years. They also used data to intensify the sense of urgency by reminding people of the poor results in the traditional system as well as celebrating small steps of progress. Most importantly, they kept their community engaged so members could continue to deepen their understanding and celebrate alongside the students who were beginning to thrive and enjoy coming to school.

In interviews, district and school leadership have shared the ways they learned from their mistakes when they stumbled or the ways their neighboring districts have encountered troubles. (more…)

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Mastery Motivates Students: “No Way” vs. “Not Yet”

December 15, 2016 by

FIHS Science Teacher Jordan Wolf with Students

This post originally appeared at Mastery Collaborative on October 21, 2016.

Can a mastery-based school culture give students a useful way to track their own progress and achievements? A visit to Flushing International High School (FIHS), one of eight Mastery Collaborative Living Lab schools, provided some insight into this issue.

During the visit, school leadership, faculty, and students discussed with guests how a focus on mastery has changed the outlook of school departments, individual teachers, and especially students. Rather than looking at grades only as a final score, students now track their progress toward mastery throughout the year, on a group of subject-specific goals. Goals are assessed multiple times over the year, allowing students to see which specific goals they need to focus on to improve their mastery of key skills and knowledge.

Switching to a Mastery-Based Model

This method of grading is of recent vintage at FIHS. Five years ago, the leadership and staff began to discuss concerns about the role of assessments. “We were not communicating our grading and assessment policies clearly enough,” explained Principal Lara Evangelista.

To address the problem, teachers began creating homemade report cards with many personalized comments to indicate how well students were meeting specific standards. At the end of marking periods, students were able to see how they could improve in specific terms. Then, the staff came up with an even better idea, said Evangelista: “Why don’t we tell [students] at the beginning what we are looking for?”

Over the course of the next four years, school leadership, faculty and students integrated clearly stated learning goals into everything from lesson plans, to the online grading system, to teacher-student advisories. (more…)

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Are You a Newbie to CBE? This Article Is Just for You

December 14, 2016 by

competencyworks-logo1I’m receiving an increase in emails and phone calls from people who are interested in understanding competency education, its design, and how to get started. To help those of you at this early stage, here is a list of resources that can get you going. Also, if any of you have favorite resources or tools you have used in your efforts to get started (I keep thinking questions to guide discussions would be really helpful), we would love, love, love to add them to this list.

What Is Competency Education?


From the Foundation for Excellence in Education


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Refining the Instructional Model and Enhancing the Instructional Cycle

December 13, 2016 by

plannerThis is the twenty-second article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

The instructional infrastructure and its focused attention on student learning, the instructional cycle, and teacher skill-building will be a work in progress for several years. The first year, teachers will offer a flurry of ideas about problems, refinements, and innovations. It is important to create a strategy for managing the revision process. Summit Public Schools has a lean start-up model that quickly tests out ideas to see if they are valuable before implementing them school-wide. Many districts engage educators in dialogue to determine which items are critical to change and which can be addressed later on, which helps to prevent the new system from imploding under the weight of its own potential.

Many issues are likely to emerge at this time: how to improve consistency on assessing student work, how to lift up both assessment and instruction to higher levels of learning, how to better support students who have difficulties with subject matter, how to provide more opportunities for students to personalize their learning experiences, and more. It is likely that the misalignment between the desired depth of knowledge, assessment, and instruction will emerge as a healthy tension as educators recognize that it is an obstacle to ensuring students are attaining higher levels of learning. Based on the feedback from educators, principals can co-design a strategy to strengthen assessment literacy, deepening their knowledge of teaching disciplines through the work on learning trajectories (now referred to as learning progressions), and building performance assessment capacity. It’s not all going to happen in the first year. (more…)

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Making Mid-Course Corrections and Refinements

December 12, 2016 by

dandelionThis is the twenty-first article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

Bob Crumley explained that in the early years of the transition at Chugach School District, he felt like he was “pulling weeds.” As the team implemented the new instructional models, they kept stumbling over practices and operational issues that were rooted in the traditional, time-based system. For example, students were learning through extra-curricular activities, but CSD wasn’t including that performance data within their system. They turned extra-curricular activities into co-curricular activities by building in processes, students, and stakeholders until they began to see that learning occurs anywhere and at any time. Expanding the walls of the classroom to include athletics, student government, field trips, the arts, and career development created opportunities for students to pursue high interest learning opportunities.

Both Brian Stack, Principal at Sanborn Regional High school, and Jonathan Vander Els, Principal at Memorial Elementary, have described having to refine their grading and scoring systems after the first year of implementation. Stack pointed out, “As a leader, what stood out for me as an example of resolute leadership was when my fellow administrators and I had the courage to recognize that a decision we made was not working, and we were able to make a change mid-year. It would have been very easy to use that mistake as an excuse to go back to our old system, but we managed to stay true to our vision for competency education and find a way to overcome the hurdles and roadblocks that were put before us.”

Keeping the community engaged throughout implementation is critical. As Pittsfield School District began implementation, they alerted their Community Advisory Council (now called the Good to Great Team) as they hit implementation issues to engage them in problem solving around mid-course corrections. Rick Schreiber of the Reinventing Schools Coalition cautions, “Often a district will establish a strong shared vision but fails to implement regular communication with stakeholders to seek out further input. In the beginning, stakeholders are building trust, and there is excitement about the upcoming changes. The second and third years are critical for leaders to continue the shared vision process to address the social, emotional, and logistical issues that arise from second order change.” (more…)

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With Much Sadness We Remember Diane Smith

December 9, 2016 by
Smith Diane

Diane Smith, Jan. 28, 1950 – Nov. 30, 2016

We lost Diane Smith recently, and the world feels very different. Diane was the Teaching & Learning Initiative Director at Oregon’s Business Education Compact, author of It’s About Time: A Framework for Proficiency-based Teaching & Learning and a valuable member of the CompetencyWorks Advisory Board. Her death came as a shock to all of us who cared for her, respected her, and were inspired by her never-ending enthusiasm to advance proficiency-based learning.

In preparing to write this tribute, Susan Patrick reminded me that we often turn to one of Diane’s statements, “Performance or competency based learning is fundamental to personalizing learning at scale and it challenges almost all of our assumptions about the present system.” That fact that we were forging into such new territory didn’t bother Diane at all. In fact she found it enthralling – she was simply an adventurer.

There is a passage in her obituary that I want to share with you, as I think it captures Diane’s entrepreneurial spirit perfectly:

Diane didn’t believe we needed to think outside the box with respect to educational reform, but rather asked attendees of her trainings, “what box?” She radiated joy and possibility that was contagious.

By now, you hopefully have a smile on your face thinking about her enthusiasm for learning and teaching.

Here are a few more memories of Diane from our colleagues:

I remember meeting Diane Smith and being amazed at the level of commitment and the span of influence of her work in competency education. She was an ardent supporter of examining systems change for competency-based pathways in partnership with local school systems and the state. Diane Smith was an early leader championing the need to move from a time-based system toward one that ensures mastery. She helped launch, drive, and support the work in Oregon over decades of sustained leadership. She was dedicated, passionate, and selfless with furthering the cause to ensure every student had the full range of knowledge and skills mastered for future success. She was kind and generously shared her knowledge broadly across the United States, taking lessons learned in Oregon with the state and with districts and working with others across the country to provide a pathway forward. She will be sorely missed by her colleagues and friends. – Susan Patrick, iNACOL, President and CEO

The world of competency education has lost one of its original innovators. Diane Smith, dear friend of Sandra Dop and I, died suddenly recently. Diane championed the work of teachers across the state of Oregon, creating models for all of us to follow. Sandra Dop, Diane and I were on speed dial with each other. Whether in a high level policy meeting, working with teachers, or having a problem presented to us, we knew we could count on each other at a moments notice. We valued our time together at national meetings and conferences. Whether sharing our love of Hallmark Christmas movies or helping to shape this new world of competency education as Coast to Coast pals, Sandra and I are honored to have called her friend. – Rose Colby, competency education consultant

With Diane’s passing I have lost a dear friend and colleague. Her work on personalized, proficiency-based education was an inspiration and a guide as we started personalized, competency-based education in Iowa.  As some of the early ones involved, we had few to call for help or just to talk through something. Rose Colby, Diane, and I called those calls the Coast to Coast Conversations. We called, texted, emailed anytime day or night and usually a response was there within the hour. We will miss you, Diane. Eventually that Coast to Coast will fill in as others join the movement, and those of us at the beginning of the journey will remember your dedication to the cause. Rest in Peace. Thanks for your friendship and hospitality–for the tour of schools in Oregon and the conference memories. – Sandra Dop, former consultant on competency education to Iowa Department of Education

Diane was always generous with her time and knowledge as an expert source as well as a mentor in providing tremendous encouragement and support for tackling issues in how to approach proficiency based learning and teaching. – Liz Glowa, consultant and author of Student-Centered Learning: Functional Requirements for Integrated Systems to Optimize Learning

Diane’s combination of professionalism and warmness permeated every room she was in. She could engage people in a conversation with ease and make them feel as though they had known each other for years, even if they just met. Her dedication to the students and teachers of Oregon was evident in the way her eyes lit up when she talked about her work. I will miss her kindness, and I will always be thankful for her partnership. – Anne Olson, Director of State Advocacy, KnowledgeWorks

Donations may be made in Diane’s honor by visiting or calling 541-979-2773. Your condolences for the family may be posted online at

Please, it helps all of us to remember her. We hope you will share your memories in the comments below.

Diane, we are missing you.

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