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What is Competency-Based Education?

Why Competency-Based Education

The time for competency-based education has come. It is vitally important for our country to move away from the restrictions of a time-based system. The reasons are many:

  • To ensure that all students succeed in building college and career readiness, consistent with the Common Core of world class knowledge and skills;
  • To build the capacity of districts, schools and educators to respond more rapidly to the needs of students and engage in continuous improvement;
  • To take advantage of the extraordinary technological advances in online learning for personalization, allowing students to learn at their own pace, any time and everywhere.
  • To provide greater flexibility for students that would otherwise not graduate from high school because they have to work or care for their families.

Many districts are making the transition to competency-based education because they know that they can’t help all their students reach career and college readiness without greater personalization. States are beginning to adjust their state policies to allow for competency-based education innovations.

What is Competency-based Education?

“In proficiency system, failure or poor performance may be part of the student’s learning curve, but it is not an outcome.”
Proficiency-Based Instruction and Assessment, Oregon Education Roundtable

Competency-based education builds upon standards reforms, offering a new value proposition for our education system. Frequently, competency-based education is described as simply flexibility in awarding credit or defined as an alternative to the Carnegie unit. Yet, this does not capture the depth of the transformation of our education system from a time-based system to a learning-based system. Competency-based education also hold promise as districts explore new ways to expand and enrich support to students, challenging the assumption that learning takes place within the classroom. Competency-based approaches are being used at all ages from elementary school to graduate school level, focusing the attention of teachers, students, parents, and the broader community on students mastering measurable learning topics.

In 2011, 100 innovators in competency-based education came together for the first time. At that meeting, participants fine-tuned a working definition of high quality competency-based education:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

Click here for an in depth look at the working definition.

What Competency-Based Education Is and What It Isn’t.

The term “competency-based education” refers to a systems model in which (1) teaching and learning are designed to ensure students are becoming proficient by advancing on demonstrated mastery and (2) schools are organized to provide timely and differentiated support to ensure equity. A competency-based structure enables personalized learning to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible. With clear and calibrated understanding of proficiency, learning can be tailored to each student’s strengths, needs, and interests and enable student voice and choice in what, how, when, and where they learn.

The term competency-based and mastery-based have also recently been used by vendors to describe adaptive software. We take the position that competency-based education empowers teachers to draw upon their professional knowledge in teaching and reaching every student. Digital tools to personalize instruction should be used appropriately based on the overall pedagogical philosophy of the school and the needs of the students. A classroom cannot be deemed competency-based or personalized simply because students are learning with digital content, are using adaptive software, or have flexible pacing.

A Note on Language

The issue of language is always a challenge when new concepts or paradigms are introduced. As you learn about competency-based education you will encounter multiple phrases used to capture the practice of students advancing upon mastery: standards-based, mastery-based, performance-based, or proficiency-based.

CompetencyWorks uses the phrase competency-based education. Why? When we started, states were already using different terms. So we decided to use the term that the U.S. Department of Education was using at the time.

What we call it isn’t important. What is important is that we share a working definition that drives policy and practice towards a learner-centered system in which success is the only option.

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