Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Competency Education and the Complicated Task of Communicating

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Did you see that competency education (the same as mastery-based education) was mentioned in the New York Times? In some ways it is a very helpful article to introduce people to the idea of competency education, highlighting students taking ownership, students engaging more, the opportunity for students to really learn or master the skills and content before moving on, and the focus on growth.

Yet the article also includes examples of the difficulty we are facing in communicating what competency education is about, what it means to have a high quality competency-based school, and the noise from some of the critics. Below is a sample of the conversation I had with the author (in my mind, of course) while reading the article.


One of the issues we are facing is that although competency education is primarily a cultural and structural shift, it also has implications for instruction. We know that instruction matters – it matters a lot. You can have strong instructional practices or weak instructional practices in a school. You can have some teachers with strong professional knowledge or some with weak professional knowledge in a school.

What competency education does is creates a structure by which teachers are talking with each other about what it means to have a student become proficient, aligning their assessments and instructional strategies, and exploring what is working and what isn’t working to help each and every student reach proficiency. Competency education, when well implemented, should be igniting the professional learning of the educators.

Competency education does introduce a few important implications for instruction and assessment:

  • Students need to be active learners with opportunity to apply their learning to new contexts (this is what makes it about competencies and not just standards). This means there also need to be assessment strategies that assess students at higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (i.e., performance-based assessment).
  • Instructional strategies need to meet students where they are. Yes, we want to think about grade level standards AND we want to think about where students’ performance levels are and where they have gaps. Then using their professional knowledge and taking into consideration the needs of other students and resources, educators work with students to develop strategies that will help them progress.
  • To the degree possible, summative assessments should be aligned with the depth of knowledge and the learning goals of the students. This may mean organizing assessments to be “just-in-time” with students bringing forward evidence of their learning. A student who has completed a unit at the beginning of the week and believes they have fully learned the material shouldn’t have to wait until the end of the month to move on to higher level work. In other learning experiences, there is going to be value in students working on a large project all with the same due date. But when the curriculum can be organized into more modular units, it opens the door to more flexibility for students.

When I see something like “students work at their own pace through worksheets, online lessons and in small group discussions with teachers” I get worried that either the school isn’t offering enough applied learning opportunities or we aren’t communicating what is happening instructionally in the classroom. First of all, students should know where they are on their own learning paths. Second, teachers are offering instruction through several methods, including individual and small groups, online videos they have made, or perhaps online instruction. In most, most but not all, of the classrooms I have visited, students talk about the use of online adaptive programs as how they practice. Most will say they prefer to learn about new material from their teacher or from a video their teacher made. Third, there will often be choices about how students practice and then demonstrate their learning. Worksheets might be one of them, and I’ve seen students playing games to practice and build math and vocabulary fluency, working on projects, writing essays, and engaging in large, inquiry-based projects that will wrap-up with a presentation.

In the article, the author quotes Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, “Mastery folks don’t understand the fundamentals of what learning is about. ” He argues that “students learn by slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it. He rejects the notion that students have learned something simply because they can pass a series of assessments. He suspects that shortly after passing those tests, students forget the material.” Honestly, I don’t think anyone I’ve met through my travels to competency-based schools would disagree with Soloway. Of course students build on knowledge and deepen their understanding as they build more knowledge on top of their foundation. In fact, one of the reasons applied learning is important is that students build a deeper understanding of the skills and knowledge. Again, this seems to me in the realm of strong professional knowledge about teaching and learning.

When I read Soloway’s comment (and of course, like any interview, it may have been taken out of context), I wonder if he understands the fundamentals of competency education. So many people think competency education is only about online learning that it makes it difficult to deal with their critiques. It ends up being an apple and orange kind of thing. Or perhaps Soloway has visited schools early in the implementation years where the focus tends to be on getting the structure right, and they haven’t dived into aligning instruction and assessment yet. We are learning that if schools can take the time to clarify their principles of learning and teaching first (i.e., creating a shared pedagogy), then implementation ends up being much smoother.

Efficiency and Effectiveness  

An interesting point raised in the article is that “Some contend that giving students an unlimited amount of time to master every classroom lesson is unrealistic and inefficient.” It’s true, competency education isn’t as concerned about efficiency as the traditionalists are. We are much more concerned about figuring out what works and then backing into what might be the most cost-effective strategies. Right now, traditional schools are teaching curriculum in very efficient ways, but the problem is that they have dreadfully low effectiveness. Why? We keep teaching grade level curriculum even though some proportion, and sometimes a high proportion, of students are performing either above or below the grade level standards. Students simply aren’t growing and making progress because they are either missing pre-requisite skills or already know the material.

The question about how to organize students, learning, and learning experiences so that teachers can best use their skills to help students progress is a challenging issue, and it doesn’t look the same in every school. Some schools, like Parker-Varney Elementary in Manchester, New Hampshire, are finding that multi-age grade bands help teachers build stronger relationships and get to know students better, as well as help shift to the idea of flexible grouping around the changing needs of students. Some schools send their best math teachers to work with the students who are struggling the most or are the most “behind.” (Remember: They aren’t really behind if they are growing and making progress; in fact, they might be growing at a rate well over 1 grade level per year. We call them “behind” because they entered school at a different performance level than we expected them to be.) Other schools might send their best math teachers to work with other teachers to help them build their skills and thereby build the overall professional capacity of the school.

One thing is for certain – competency education requires a schoolwide commitment. It’s not something teachers can do alone. It requires organizational flexibility to ensure students have daily access to extra help and in deploying resources to meet changing needs of students as they learn, grow, and progress.

The Cost of Competency Education

The article mentions Amy Slaton, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia who studies the history of science and engineering in education. According to the article, Slaton “worries that the method is frequently adopted to save costs. (When paired with computers, it can lead to larger classrooms and fewer teachers.)” Hmm. I have yet to hear of a district converting to save costs. Cost has been a driver for introducing competency education in higher education, but not in K-12. Perhaps Slaton is referring to higher education.

Certainly, by getting on a more virtuous cycle with students more engaged, more motivated, and getting the instruction they need when they need it, districts will find that they can redeploy some staff. For example, Lindsay was able to deploy two assistant principals because disciplinary issues dropped so dramatically. However, Lindsay never set out to reduce costs. They were focused on helping students become lifelong learners and ensuring that students graduate with the skills they need to be successful in college and careers. They didn’t want to ever have the experience of graduating a student who can barely read again, a situation that can be found in many traditional districts.

Competency Education and Educational Technology

The author of the article makes the claim that “It’s no surprise that schools adopting the method are often the same to have invested heavily in education software; computers are often ubiquitous inside their classrooms.” A double hmm. Competency education developed before there were many computers in the classrooms, and certainly you will find it in districts that have not been able to invest in digitizing their classrooms. Lindsay Unified had only few computers in the back of each classroom when I started visiting them. Now you will certainly see more computers there, but it wasn’t always like that. New Hampshire turned to competency education when blended learning was barely a bubble on their agenda.

However, I think we could discover some insights by taking the assumption that schools with more computers turn to competency-based education. First, these may be schools that are deeply committed to trying to figure out what they can do better to help their students learn. Computers offer much more than putting a student in front of a screen to work their way through an educational software program. They can be used for productivity in the same ways adults use them, including making presentations, writing papers, and creating spreadsheets to help analyze data. They can be used as a door to the great big fascinating world through Skyping scientists in Kenya, watching videos of animals that live so deep down in the ocean most humans will never see them, or learning about historical events and seeing pictures of the people who participated. They can be used to create easy access to the curriculum or learning experiences they will need to learn and demonstrate their learning. For example, many teachers put their units online so students can easily access different units within the same course. And, most importantly for competency-based schools, computers can help to create the transparency about student progress that allows students to know where they are in their learning and teachers to stay on top of how students are progressing (not to mention information on how to best organize students so they get the instructional support they need). Perhaps the schools that are most committed to figuring out what can work better for students will be exploring how to use technology effectively and turning to competency education.

Second, technology can create more flexibility than the traditional teacher-paced classroom with everyone on the same page and moving forward regardless if students have learned the material or not. This flexibility for students to get more instructional support if they need it to master the material is referred to as “at their own pace”. However, every high quality competency-based school plans for and monitors pace very closely. Once schools become comfortable with students not always being on the same page on the same day, does competency education seem like the next step? Perhaps. Of course, competency education is equally concerned about how to ensure reliability across the school and district – so that when a teacher says a student is proficient in algebra or in writing at the eighth grade level, everyone has confidence that they actually do. No more passing students on with a C or D. The question in competency education is, “How do we make sure students are growing and progressing at a meaningful pace?” Perhaps the student transfers into eighth grade with fourth grade level reading skills. They aren’t going to “catch up” in one year. However, using the best of what we know about engaging and motivating students and the best of what we know about teaching literacy, we could expect a bit more than one year’s growth – maybe somewhere up to two years. Pacing becoming planning, monitoring, and learning the habits of work that will help students be the best learners they can be.

Is Competency Education Anti-Intellectual?

As for Jane Robbins, who is concerned about checklists and anti-intellectualism, I invite her to visit the Young Women’s Leadership Academy and see firsthand how competency education can be used to support a very rich learning environment (despite the efforts of the Regents to hold all the schools in New York to the lowest levels of depth of knowledge, memorization, and comprehension). There is no doubt that some schools in their first year of implementation turn to checklists and linear paths forward. Certainly the structure of some standards even suggest that is the way students should progress. However, if the culture of learning is strong and the conversation about what makes effective instruction and assessment is lifted up, most schools stop using simple checklists and begin to explore opportunities for richer learning experiences that will engage students and allow them to build their higher order skills such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

* * *

To wrap up this rambling discussion, I think there are a couple of insights about how we communicate.

  • We need to always explain what the problem is with the traditional system, including a focus on efficiency rather than effectiveness.
  • We need to give examples of how competency education supports deeper learning and inquiry-based learning.
  • We need to be more clear that technology is a tool that can be used in competency-based classrooms but isn’t a requirement. For competency-based schools, the power of technology is in better information management systems.