What is Competency-Based Education?

“In a 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 holds promise as districts explore new ways to expand and enrich support to students, challenging the assumption that learning takes place only 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 to develop a working definition of competency-based education. In 2019 this definition was updated, as presented in this report from the Aurora Institute. The revised 2019 definition of competency-based education is:

  1. Students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning.
  2. Assessment is a meaningful, positive, and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant, and actionable evidence.
  3. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  4. Students progress based on evidence of mastery, not seat time.
  5. Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing.
  6. Strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of schools and education systems.
  7. Rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable.

The Aurora Institute book Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education, a free download, provides extensive additional information.

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 Competency-Based Education Is and 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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