Summer Reading for Newbies: What is Competency Education?

July 6, 2015 by

Dog ReadingWhen Susan Patrick and I started working together in 2009, there were two things written about competency education. There was lots about the classroom practices of mastery-based learning, but only Delivering on the Promise and A New Model of Student Assessment for the 21st Century provided insights into what a competency-based structure rather than a time-based system looked like. They are both still worth reading: Delivering on the Promise captures the transformation that occurred at Chugach School District, and I consider the description of the failings of the traditional system in A New Model of Student Assessment for the 21st Century to be one of the best out there.

Six years later, reports and blogs abound. So where should someone trying to understand competency education focus their attention? This list would be better written by a master-novice (someone who has just learned about competency education), as they would be able to tell you what was most helpful to them (in fact…we would love it if you told us what resources have been most helpful to you so that we are more confident in our recommendations). However, I will do my best to provide a reading list.

Please note: We are still building knowledge and gathering it together so we can learn from each other. I’ve marked gaps in the field of knowledge in italics. 

Quick Overview

  • Great Schools Partnership has developed a great set of resources called Proficiency-Based Learning Simplified. The Ten Principles of Proficiency-Based Learning is an excellent resource. Don’t just skim it. Find a few colleagues and talk together about it.
  • CompetencyWorks developed introductory materials – a general description, one for state leaders, and one for federal leaders. These are helpful, but honestly we really need a fun, animated video to really bring to life what competency education means.
  • CompetencyWorks wiki also has a detailed definition that many people have told me is really helpful in understanding how the five-part working definition informs system-building, school design, and classroom practices.

As I make this list, it’s really clear to me that as a field we are still missing an easy-to-read primer on competency education that helps explain how the pieces of competency fit together to create a cohesive system.

Going a Bit Deeper

Once you’ve read what competency education is, questions will likely abound. The following papers provide more depth.

  • The Past and the Promise: Today’s Competency-Based Education Movement: This is the first paper in Students at the Center’s new Competency Education Research Series published by Jobs for the Future. I think the section on the underlying research base is a must read. However, it doesn’t include the research on systems-building that I think is also underlying competency education – I’d turn to the work by Peter Senghe, total quality management, and continuous improvement if you want to go deeper.
  • Profiles of Models: There are two papers that profile a number of different models – Making Mastery Work and Springpoint’s new paper, Inside Mastery Based High Schools: Profiles and Conversations. The problem is that both highlight only high schools….This is another gap in knowledge that needs to be filled. We really need something that looks at whole districts as well as elementary and middle schools.
  • Equity in Competency Education: Realizing the Potential, Overcoming the Obstacles: This is JFF’s second paper and is a good start on identifying issues related to equity. How we think about equity changes as more data becomes available on depth of learning, pace, and progress. And we still need to think more sharply about quality implementation so we understand exactly how competency education needs to be implemented to ensure traditionally underserved students can soar.

How to Implement

Making Sense of and Integrating Personalization, Competency Education, and Blended Learning

State Strategies and Policy

Federal Policy

Higher Education

If you are totally new to cbe in higher education, start with Cracking the Credit Hour by New America Foundation. We’ve also put together a reading list.

Again, please let us know what you have found to be particularly helpful.

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  1. Comment by Heidi Pickett 8:30 pm, December 15, 2015

    I have really enjoyed reading your posts/emails. Our district has been in the process of implementing personalized learning over the past few years. In doing my own research to better understand competency based education, I came across the website and spent my summer reading the research briefs as well as everything else I could get my hands on. After talking with two other grade level science teachers, and receiving permission from our district coordinator and building level principal, we decided to give it a shot. We spent the summer planning and fully implemented a competency based approach in our 7th grade science classroom. It has been the hardest yet most rewarding experience I have ever had as an educator and I would be happy to share our experience with others in hopes of encouraging those who have reservations to give it a shot. Implementation of competencies at the middle school level brings about it’s own challenges but it is absolutely worth the journey.

  2. Comment by Chris Sturgis 9:42 pm, December 15, 2015

    Hi Heidi — I was at Henry County last month and will be writing about it soon! And we would love to hear from you about your experiences — what has worked well and what hasn’t and what you will be focusing on next.

    It’s really great to see teachers move forward towards competency-based practices. It’s also tricky without a full schoolwide structure to support students. I’m really interested in learning about your experiences.

    Thanks, chris

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