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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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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Where Are the Bullets?

December 3, 2012 by

Oh the lure of the quick fix. Humans are fascinated with them. Without this attraction, con artists and snake oil salesmen would not be viable professions. We see the desire to solve something quickly in the hero who simply needs to make a single correct decision, and the world is saved.

I recently watched a special commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception by Franco Harris. The host suggested the amazing play led to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ dominance in the 1970s. I am pretty sure, however, that the catch did not cause a giant shift in the cosmos allowing for the Steelers to win four Superbowls.  In fact, it was a team effort. After all, they did have a defensive line referred to collectively as the Iron Curtain.

It does make for a good story though.

In education, we too are susceptible to the hunt for the one right answer. “This program will raise test scores; all you need to do is have students write more; we need Singapore math; STEM is the key.” While all of these are legitimate arguments for how we can improve instruction, they are only a piece in how we improve learning. Educators need to stop seeking the “Silver Bullet.” It does not exist.

Instead, we need to do the slow and sometimes painful work of developing and effectively executing a strategy. Competency-based education, or Customized Learning, is not an “it” that comes in an easy to install program packet. It requires a shift away from the status quo. What worked for us in my school and district was this:

A process of facilitated conversations amongst all stakeholders that led to the establishment of a philosophical lens through which all decisions pass.

Those that pass are implemented; those that do not are dismissed or adjusted. I will break the statement down into sections to better clarify:

  • Process: The strategy should include well scripted actions that help to move your school or district closer to your vision.
  • Facilitated Conversations: It is important– almost critical– to use individuals from outside the district who have expertise in leading change. My district has been partnering with the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC) for the past four years.
  • All Stakeholders: All people who have an investment in the school need to have their voices heard and offer input into the direction of the system. The decisions should not be driven by people who lack expertise to make the informed choices, but they all should have an input into the bigger picture.
  • Philosophical Lens: By gathering the input from the stakeholders, a shared vision of what the perfect school or system looks and sounds like should be created.
  • Decisions are Passed: When we make a decision for how we will proceed to overcome an identified challenge, we must pass the decision through our lens. If it does not make it through, we seek another solution. Only those things that line with our beliefs are implemented. (more…)
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Testing Myths

November 30, 2012 by

The word “test” has a negative connotation.  It conjures up images of students sitting in rows, number two pencils, and bubbles.  It feels like long amounts of time, tricky questions, and essays. The test is a difficult task in which one must prove oneself.  The students are the Odysseus, Perseus, and King Arthur, suffering through test after test on a long arduous journey. Teachers are the archetypal meddling Gods, monsters, and dragons of mythology providing one test after another for students to show what they really know. Teachers’ main goal seems to be creating elaborate tasks for students to conquer on their own in order to prove that they are good enough to be marked as having performed satisfactorily.

Assessment can, and, in a successful proficiency-based learning model does, have a much more positive connotation.  Assessing is judging or appraising.  In the case of proficiency-based learning, an assessment is a tool used to judge or appraise a performance against a particular learning target, or standard.  It is about finding evidence that a student knows or is able to do something, then documenting it. Assessments are ways to see if students are “getting it” or not. Students are still our mythic heroes, moving ahead on their journeys, breezing through at times and struggling at others. Teachers are now the archetypal wise man, or guiding sage: Athena supporting Odysseus, Hermes helping Perseus, Merlin guiding King Arthur.  Instead of constantly testing the students they work with, these teachers are constantly judging where students are in their progress toward a learning target, and providing them the support, help, or guidance they need to continue making progress.

Yes, constantly. But remember, it is more like the Arthur-Merlin dynamic.  Assessments must happen constantly in order for teachers to know how students are progressing in their learning and if anything needs to change in the instructional plan.  This is true for one particular student, small groups of students, and even the whole class. When combined with effective feedback and progress tracking tools, constant assessment allows students to take on much more ownership of their learning by making it clear to them where they are in relation to a target, and what they have to do in order to meet that target.

Constant assessment sounds like a huge drain on a teacher’s time, but it doesn’t have to be.  Again, think Athena, not the meddling Greek Gods.  There are ways to craft assessments so that students barely know they are being assessed.  The best assessment, much like the best sage guidance, feels like it is just part of the regular flow of things. It is important for students to apply their skills and knowledge in longer, more complicated tasks, just not all the time.  If we want to be like the mythical wise men and sage guides we have to be ready to give just-in-time support so that we know our heroes will be successful when put to the test; if we wait for the test, it is often too late to provide any meaningful guidance. (more…)

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Exceeding Is More Complicated Than Adding Glitter and Flash

November 29, 2012 by

There are different ideas about the best way to report student progress towards targets, or competencies.  One of the most popular methods is to use a 4 point scale with levels described similarly to the example below:

4 = Exceeds
3 = Meets
2 = Partially Meets or Developing
1 = Does Not Meet or Emerging

In the book Making Standards Useful In The Classroom, Marzano lays out the following scale:

4 = In addition to score 3, in-depth inferences and applications beyond what was taught
3 = No major errors or omissions regarding any simple and complex information/skills that were explicitly taught
2 = No major errors or omissions regarding the simpler information/skills
1 = With help, a partial understanding of some of the simpler information/skills and some of the more complex ideas and processes

In our school, we are beginning to use the following descriptions for performance levels, based on the Marzano scale:

4: Advanced (I can use what I learned in a new way)
3: Proficient (I learned the foundational and complex parts and can apply them)
2: Foundational (I know the foundational parts)
1: Dependent (I can show what I learned with help)

If you are in a school or district that uses a scale like any of the ones above, then sooner or later you and your colleagues need to figure out what it means for students at your particular grade level and in your particular content area to “exceed” on the targets.

I know, I know, someone out there is thinking that in a truly competency-based system a student would never be “partially meeting” or even “exceeding” because as soon as a student demonstrates proficiency for a target they would move on the next level of difficulty in a learning progression.  Unfortunately many of us are not yet working in a truly competency-based system where this is possible. Further, in many cases it is more appropriate to encourage and push students to go deeper with knowledge and applications rather than moving them along to the next target. (more…)

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Naming the Elephant

November 28, 2012 by

It’s the elephant in the room. How are we going to help our most struggling students, those more than two years “behind” their expected grade level skills or with significant gaps meet the college- and career-ready standards in the Common Core?

A new report helps us get a grip on the important challenge we are facing in our country. Aligning Competencies to Rigorous Standards for Off-Track Youth: A Case Study of Boston Day and Evening Academy by Jobs for the Future can be used in two different ways to generate meaningful dialogue among state policymakers, districts and schools.

First, it outlines the process Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA) used for aligning their competencies with the Common Core, taking into account the academic needs of their student population. The tools and resources that are shared can definitely help everyone expedite their own alignment processes.

Second, it offers a section on Lessons for Educators that can be used as a discussion tool.  BDEA and JFF have the courage to name the elephant.  As you read this section, remember the issue isn’t just about over-age and under-credited students in alternative schools. Most middle school and high schools have students that have entered without “grade-level skills”. So it is a challenge we all share:

Schools serving over-age, under-credited students need to include the mastery of some middle and even elementary school competencies, particularly in mathematics. Of all the lessons learned, the most challenging and concerning for BDEA has been the significant gaps in students’ mathematics knowledge and how to best handle those gaps.

This issue is not unique to BDEA, nor can BDEA solve it in isolation. As districts move toward adopting the Common Core, they will confront the challenge o f how to support schools serving over-age, undercredited students, where students at a fifth-grade mathematics level may sit next to students at the tenth- or eleventh-grade level. Competency-based models enable the kind of differentiation these students need, but the approach is not a panacea. It takes a concerted, coordinated effort on the part of school leaders and teachers to implement.

I am getting calls almost every week now about how to structure accountability systems that account for the elephant. Recently a school called me to talk about how to revise highly qualified teacher policies because their high school teachers either didn’t know how to or wouldn’t effectively teach their students how to do elementary school math. (more…)

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Spending Time

November 27, 2012 by

Time is one of the most precious commodities in a school, and students should know how to spend their time wisely.  Students frequently expect their teachers to direct all of their time, and they assume that they are free to hang out or socialize if they don’t perceive that they have been specifically directed. This underlying assumption is so pervasive in many school cultures that it isn’t even recognized as a problem. It is, however, a key competency—and independent time management is almost a requirement in a competency-based classrooms.

Teachers universally agree that there is not enough time in the day to do all of the things that are expected. Part of that time crunch stems from the fact that whole class instruction is still a prevalent mode of delivery, and this method inherently wastes a lot of time. Teachers gravitate to whole class instruction because it offers a sense of control and it is easier to manage. Our experience has told us that kids who aren’t being managed are likely to be off task. This doesn’t have to be the case, but it does require some explicit changes in the way that adults talk to students about time.

Teachers have to understand that kids passively wait to be directed because that’s what they have been taught to do. In order to have kids understand that they are responsible for active learning at all times, they have to be taught this expectation and they have to be taught how to manage their time. In my own classroom, I see students in grade 5-8 for a quarter every year. The first time that they come to my room, they sit down and wait for something to happen. That is probably what they do everywhere, but I want them to learn to get their work out as soon as they arrive. That means that I have to devote time to creating an activity that young students, who possess limited executive skills, can initiate independently, and I have to prompt them repeatedly at each arrival. Eventually, they start to get it, and I no longer have to tell them to get started without me. Of course, they are only in my class for a quarter of the year, so they need a little reminder when they come to class the next year, but, in the end, they know that they are expected to get to work as soon as they arrive in my room. Students who are in other classes where this is the expectation find it easier to become self-directed, primarily because the expectation is reinforced by multiple adults in various situations. Those students come to expect that it is their responsibility to get to work. (more…)

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November 26, 2012 by

Thomas Rooney, Superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District

I have received three requests over the past week asking for evidence of success from competency education models.  The truth of the matter is that we are not swimming in proof points. And it is very, very important for our continued work to advance competency education that we generate them. They do have to be more than anecdotal. They don’t have to be a third party random assignment evaluation.

A further complicating matter is that our current approaches to accountability are not designed to easily pick up the fact that students may be getting the help they need to fill academic gaps. Thus an “11th” grade student working to strengthen elementary school level math skills may be “ not proficient” in state tests even if they moved up three grade levels over the year. Perhaps a growth model will pick that up, but what we are finding is that the horrendous gaps generated by passing students along unprepared often challenge the limits of our accountability and assessment systems.

I have collected the few examples of evidence of competency education adding value below. There are a few more that I’m following up on. Please send me any and all that you might have…That way we can keep pulling together a solid argument for competency education.

Chugach (From Delivering on the Promise)

In 1994, the Chugach School District, serving 214 students over 20,000 square miles in impoverished communities, began a fundamental redesign of how they would educate their students. With the courage to confront the fact that 90 percent of their students could not read at grade level and only one student in 26 years had graduated from college, Chugach focused their mission on ensuring that all students learn to high standards. (more…)

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Increasing Student Trajectories

November 20, 2012 by

from Making Mastery Work

Students Receive Rapid, Differentiated Support – that’s the fourth element of the working definition of competency education.  Without support, competency education wouldn’t be any different than the traditional A-F system, which tolerates students not learning very much or just enough to pass on to the next grade.

For anyone planning the transition to competency education, an essential step is to have an intentional strategy for providing support. Start by asking yourself two questions:

  • How are we going to support the students that don’t reach proficiency the first time they encounter a new skill or content?
  • What is our strategy for supporting students that enter our school significantly behind or with gaps in their academic skills?

Don’t wait to think about it. You can learn from Andrew Skarzynksi, Principal at Medical Professions and Teacher Preparation Academy:

“In hindsight, we would have spent more time identifying additional instructional opportunities for students, and examining the role of anytime, anyplace education. Due to a variety of factors, such as academic need, different learning backgrounds, and a lack of prior exposure to concepts such as ‘the historian’s craft,’ we discovered a distinct need to increase many students’ learning trajectories. We would now incorporate more alternative learning approaches, such as the flipped classroom and extended day learning. We initially began with a summer academy and realized early on that we need to incorporate more opportunities for ‘any time, any place education.'” (more…)

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Five Things That Changed At My School When We Adopted Competencies

November 15, 2012 by

Jumping into the deep end of competency education

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago.

The second best time is now.”

This ancient Chinese proverb sums up my view on why, just three years ago, it was time for my school, Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH, to stop “talking” about making the change to a competency-based grading and reporting model, and why it was time to start “doing it.” With a leap of faith in support of the latest educational research from authors Colby, Marzano, O’Connor, Reeves, Stiggins, and Wormeli, our school community “jumped into the deep end of the pool” of high school redesign. Looking back on this now, I firmly believe it was the best thing we could have done. While we haven’t solved all of our issues yet, I think we are well on our way toward realizing our vision of “learning for all, whatever it takes.”

As you might expect, our leap of faith into the deep end of the pool didn’t happen without some advanced strategic planning and groundwork. In the years leading up to our jump, teachers in my school spent a great deal of time developing common course-based competencies and making sure they were aligned to the New Hampshire Grade Span Expectations (GSEs) and ultimately the common core. They worked in teams to develop common assessments and common rubrics to measure student learning. As a school, we talked about the importance of focusing our professional work on student learning and mastery of competencies. Still, we were only scratching the surface of our potential. We knew that if we truly wanted to impact student learning on a large-scale in our school, we were going to have to operate differently.

Last year, we developed a blueprint to help us become a premiere high school in New Hampshire. We identified three “pillars” of success, and we recognized that if we could do these three things well, then everything else would fall into place:

Pillar One:  Our LEARNING COMMUNITIES work interdependently to advance student learning and academic performance for which we are collectively responsible and mutually accountable.

Pillar Two:  Our STUDENTS ARE ENGAGED in learning tasks and performance assessments that accurately measure learning and mastery of competency.

Pillar Three:  Our community fosters a POSITIVE SCHOOL CULTURE AND CLIMATE for each of our stakeholders that promotes respect, responsibility, ambition, and pride.

Since the adoption of our pillar model, we have made some great strides toward becoming a premiere school. Here are five ways our school has changed since we went to a competency-based model: (more…)

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Mud Season and Modules

November 14, 2012 by

from Making Mastery Work

One of the things that Making Mastery Work: A Close-Up View of Competency Education brings into focus is the number of design choices competency-based schools and districts have in deciding how to shape their models.  For example, there are lots of design choices about time. Yes—all of the schools share a belief that time is a variable and not a constant. Yet, how they begin to create flexible use of time varies substantially.

Below are two examples from Making Mastery Work about how two schools organize time for students.  I realized while preparing this post (ahh, writing is such a great way to force deeper understanding!) that it’s not an issue of just more time or less time, extended or expanded time. There are other dimensions such as constructing “time” for application of learning including project-based, problem-based, and fieldwork.  There are also dimensions about how much time is expected between steps, such as modules, trimesters, semesters, and transitional time to provide flexibility.  It seems to me that we should be able to figure out some common language to expedite our thinking strategically and through multiple dimensions in how we use time.

Casco Bay High School, Portland Maine:  To facilitate student access to the power of collective learning, Casco Bay organizes its students into grade-level cohorts, and its school day has recognizable bell schedule with block periods. The block periods make it possible for students to undertake the deep thinking work required by Expeditions while also providing flexibility to accommodate student learning outside the classroom, such as fieldwork. … At two points during the school year, Casco Bay offers “Intensives” in which students study one topic for a number of days. Intensive topics range from Bridge-Building Engineering to Winter Sports. A smaller portion of students also use this time to continue working toward mastery of learning targets they have not yet achieved. (more…)

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