Category: Analysis

Framing the Learning in the Blended Learning Environment

October 17, 2013 by

ColbyAs more models for blended and online learning emerge into the mainstream of educational design, there is still some undercurrent of thought that these models have emerged because students are not successful in the traditional classroom-learning environment.  In addressing recovery for such lack of success, it may happen that students are more successful in a blended or online learning opportunity.

This has given rise to the misconception that both blended and online learning may in fact not have the degree of rigor that is thought to be present in the traditional classroom environment.

Let’s be clear about the framework for a high quality competency-based learning environment, be it in the brick and mortar classroom environment, blended or online learning opportunity, or the community based extended learning opportunity.  (more…)

HELP Committee Report on ESEA Includes Competency Education

October 15, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 9.11.33 AMAlthough I thought the government was shut down, some things just kept rolling. On Friday, October 11th, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions filed its report to accompany the ESEA reauthorization bill  that passed out of committee on June 12. Maria Worthen, iNACOL’s Vice President for Federal and State Policy, reminded us in an email: “Report language can carry a little or a lot of weight, depending on how much of it ends up in a conference report and how much ED chooses to follow congressional intent when implementing.”

Competency education was inserted in two places in the report.  To help you find your way through its 1,054 pages of the report, I’ve excerpted the two sections below.  If you want to take a look yourself, you can find the working definition of competency education nserted into Title 1, Part B: “Pathways to College” as a method to improve secondary schools (page 33).  In Title IV: “Supporting Successful, Well-Rounded Students”, among a list of special programs, the emergence of competency education is recognized with a pilot for competency-based assessment and accountability (page 51) (more…)

I’m So Dizzy….

October 9, 2013 by

csbouldersmallUpdate September 2015: I’ve noticed a lot of people have been reading this blog lately. I think we have moved beyond this stage of confusion. In the paper Maximizing Competency Education and Blended Learning we tried to explain the difference between a personalized system (as compared to factory model), competency-based structure, personalized learning as an approach, and online/blended learning. I think this might be a much more helpful reading at this point.

I’m so dizzy…my head is spinning. Does personalized learning equal competency education equal blended learning equal student-centered learning? I think not…but the recent Student First report “A Personalized Future for Education” really tipped me over the edge.  I can’t go on any longer without making sense of it all.

Now we know that we have a language challenge in competency education because each state has developed their specific terms. That makes sense to me – this is a local reform that is rapidly advancing across the country. New Hampshire and Iowa are “competency-based”; Maine, Oregon, and Colorado are “proficiency-based”; and Connecticut and Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority are mastery-based. That’s why we created the working definition– to provide some cohesion to the field.  That’s how Diane Smith in Oregon and Sandra Dop in Iowa can have meaningful conversations without confusion, even though they may use different terms.  We call it a “working” definition, so if we need to update it to reflect best practices, we can do that.

However, the confusion between the terms competency education, personalized, student-centered, customization, and blended is awesome. The Student First report is a great example of this. In the report, they lead with personalization, and then write, “Personalized learning is a student-centered approach to education that allows each student to advance through academic content at his or her own pace. In a personalized model, also known as a competency-based education (CBE)…” and continue to introduce the competency education working definition.  They then go on to explain, “Thanks to an influx of choice and entrepreneurship in public education, personalized learning is popping up in all different shapes and sizes across the country. Since competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that students earn academic credit, states are exploring many different ways to personalize learning for their students. Some strategies to personalize learning include: blended learning, online schools, dual enrollment, project and community-based learning, and credit recovery. Blended learning and online schools are two of the fastest growing forms of personalized learning.” Once they started to describe blended learning in detail, I totally lost it – who wouldn’t think that personalization = competency education = blended? (more…)

Competency-Based Education and Blended Learning: Worlds Apart or Just Two Sides of the Personalization Coin?

October 1, 2013 by

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This post was originally published by Clayton Christensen Institute on September 18, 2013.

At the Clayton Christensen Institute, we often talk about blended learning and competency-based education in the same breath. That’s because we see both as necessary features of accomplishing personalized learning at scale. A competency-based system allows students to move at their own pace upon mastering concepts, rather than being forced to move beyond material they don’t fully understand or being held back when they are learning at an advanced pace. You can imagine this highly individualized model in a traditional classroom with extremely low teacher-to-student ratios. But to operate personalization at scale, we believe technology must play a part. Software tools in a blended classroom stand to provide a mix of content, assessment, and meaningful real-time feedback that can help teachers move each student along an individual learning pathway at his own pace.

Although this theory sounds quite tidy, the reality on the ground is a bit messier. I keep asking myself: are practitioners and policymakers in blended learning and competency-based education coordinating their efforts? Both, from different angles, are building toward a vision of personalized learning. This common vision, however, does not always yield as natural a synergy as you might imagine. As Chris Sturgis of CompetencyWorks pointed out in her blog a few weeks back, competency-based education models could benefit from taking greater advantage of blended learning, particularly to lend extra support to students who have gaps in understanding or are falling behind. And although many edtech products describe themselves as “mastery-based,” these tools are not always customized to competency-based education classrooms’ needs to track students’ progress against discrete competencies and provide multiple pathways to learning.

There’s not really animosity between these two camps, if you can call them that. Proponents of competency-based education are certainly not luddites, nor are blended-learning entrepreneurs and educators gripping onto time-based policies. But at this point, it’s easier to find models that are either blended or competency-based, rather than both. I have a few working hypotheses of why these worlds aren’t always aligned, or why we aren’t seeing a lot of blended competency-based models yet. (more…)

Our Piece of the Pie and Competency-Based Education

September 24, 2013 by

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Launched nearly 35 years ago, Our Piece of the Pie® (OPP®) is dedicated to helping Connecticut youth become economically independent adults.  All of OPP’s strategies and services are structured to lead at-risk or disadvantaged youth, ages 14-24, toward the goals of achieving a college degree or vocational credentials and obtaining rewarding employment.  This posting will focus on OPP’s journey in building its signature competency-based high school model.

OPP’s Competency-Based High Schools at a Glance

  • Founded in 2009, Opportunity High School in Hartford is a unique partnership between Hartford Public Schools and OPP serving over 100 over-aged and under-credited students
  • Founded in 2012, Learning Academy of Bloomfield is a co-operated high school between the Bloomfield Public Schools and OPP. During 2012-2013 the school served over 20 students with all seniors receiving diplomas
  • In August  2013, OPP began its work with Norwalk Public Schools under an agreement with the state to turn around Briggs HS in Norwalk, a “failing” school serving up to 100 high-risk students
  • With the June 5, 2013 vote of approval by the CT State Board of Education, OPP will open Path Academy, its first charter school, in Windham in August 2014 serving a maximum of 200 high school students who are off-track; in doing so, OPP becomes  a charter management organization (CMO)

Eight Core Philosophies

The Path Academy model is the prototype for all of OPP’s Competency-Based High Schools. OPP builds the model around eight core philosophies that guide the innovative school model: (more…)

Ensuring Practice Informs Federal Policy

September 3, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-07-18 at 6.10.17 PMDuring ACHIEVE’s Competency-based Pathways Working Group meeting today, Lillian Pace from KnowledgeWorks provided a quick update on federal policy incentives, barriers and issues surrounding competency education.  This post includes information shared during the meeting including 1) questions and concerns raised by policymakers and 2) examples  of how competency education is being integrated into federal policy.  At the end I’ll share my concerns about possible unintended consequences of having increased policy discussion at the federal level.

1) Policymaker Questions and Concerns

The four topics below come up over and over again as policymakers and advocates try to get their heads wrapped around competency education. They are important for us to think about as we strengthen our communication efforts and prioritize our efforts.

A)   Equity: “Won’t a self-paced approach just widen the achievement gap?”

B) Capacity: “Do states and districts even have access to the type of assessments and personalized learning tools to ensure quality implementation?”

C) Accountability: “If we provide states and districts with the flexibility to design new accountability systems aligned to competency, how will we ensure comparability and rigor?”

D) Teacher Evaluation: “What does teacher evaluation look like in a competency-based setting? Who is the teacher of record?”

2) Examples of Federal Policies


A)  Innovation Funds Race to the Top, i3, RTT-District: There was strong demand for competency education: 75% of the winning RTT– D applicants included competency-based elements

B) White House Proposal for High School Redesign: The proposal includes the following language: “Redesigned high schools will move away from the traditional notion of seat time and focus instead on the knowledge and skills needed to successfully transition from high school to college and careers.” See the Fact Sheet: Redesigning America’s High Schools; USED 6/7/13 (more…)

Only Ten States Require Districts to Use Time-based Credit

August 6, 2013 by

Taylor White

Yep, only 10. That’s what the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and learning found out in their scan of state policies regarding credits as part of their reevaluation of the Carnegie Unit’s role in education. Taylor White from CFAT writes: Though many other states have offered such flexibility for more than a decade, the recent trend is clear: Mandatory use of seat-time is becoming a thing of the past.

After reviewing all 50 states and DC, CFAT organized states into five categories (below). You can find out where your state is by downloading the full report here.

  • Category 1) Carnegie Unit abolished as primary measure of student learning. Credits must be awarded based on students’ mastery of content and skills rather than on seat-time. (1 state)
  • Category 2) Districts define credits and may use seat-time OR another measure (e.g. proficiency or competency) to award credit in core courses. (29 states)
  • Category 3) Districts may apply for special-status or waivers to use measures other than seat-time to award credit for core courses. (4 states)
  • Category 4) Districts do not have any flexibility and must use time-based credits. (11 states)
  • Category 5) Districts have some flexibility, but it is limited to special circumstances, such as credit-recovery programs or out-of-school learning, and may require approval from the state. (6 states)

The Envelope Please…And the Winners Are…

July 18, 2013 by

The Next Generation Learning Challenge announced the Wave IV Cycle 1 winners this week. (Disclaimer: I’m one of the reviewers for NGLC.) There are a number of grants that are going to offer valuable insights into competency education. One of the things we will need to pay attention to is the difference between those that have a full competency-based infrastructure that is similar to or expanded beyond our working definition, and those that may emphasize proficiency (or mastery) without the same level of formality. We really need to understand what are the key elements to which we need to have absolute fidelity.

We are also starting to see 2.0 versions from the leading innovators, including New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy, Boston Day and Evening Academy, and Florida Virtual School.  They are exploring moving to fully competency-based learning progressions rather than using courses to organize units of learning. They are also moving toward new information systems and integration of what we are learning from experiential learning, mind-body connections, and social-emotional learning.

A few of the winners are described below:


Launch Grants

VIRTUAL LEARNING ACADEMY CHARTER SCHOOL (NH), the statewide online charter school is redefining “school” to mean wherever learning occurs, whether in a classroom, online, or in the community through VLACS Aspire, a 100% self-paced competency-based approach (rather than a course-based curriculum), that harnesses the face-to-face learning potential of internships, service-learning, and distributed learning team-based projects. (more…)

The Reinventing Schools Coalition

March 25, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 9.45.34 AMThe Reinventing Schools Coalition (RISC) has been working with many of the school districts around the country that are transforming their operations to “personalized mastery” systems.  There aren’t a lot of technical assistance providers to help schools make the transition, so it’s good news that RISC is opening up their operations to a membership organization with four different levels of membership – individual, education institution, corporate and coalition members for those schools and districts using their framework.

I have a deep respect for the work that RISC is doing. There are two things that always jump out to me when I visit schools that have been partners with RISC: (more…)

Yes, This Is Definitely Evidence

December 4, 2012 by


In a previous post I summarized the evidence of competency education making a difference in student achievement and school performance.

Sometimes a picture says a thousand words.  Below is a snapshot of Adams 50 transformation from having seven schools identified as lowest-performing to having zero. ZERO.  Notice the schools in green – those are the highest performing schools that expanded from two to seven schools in three years.



You can see the image more clearly here. (more…)

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