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Aurora Institute

Competency Education: The Next Great Disruptor in Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Brian Stack

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education

Brian Stack
Brian Stack

At a summit hosted by Bainbridge Consulting in San Diego last week, research fellow Thomas Arnett of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation talked about the power of disruptors in shaping our future world. Borrowing an example from the auto industry, Arnett talked about the rise to power of the Korean-born Kia Corporation. Introduced to the American market in the 1970s, Kia cars quickly developed an undesirable reputation as being cheap and poorly fabricated. Since then, Kia began focusing on building high-quality cars at affordable prices. Their products have gotten better, and as we move into 2015, Kia car sales are expected to be among the highest of any auto manufacturer in the American market. Similar to the Lexus Corporation, which recently overtook Mercedes in the luxury car class, the Kia Corporation has been a disruptor in its industry because it has found a way to produce a better product more efficiently and at a lower cost to the consumer.

Bainbridge organized last week’s Disruptors in Education Summit to engage some of the industry’s most visionary entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, policy experts, and practitioners in meaningful dialogue around key disruptive trends impacting K-12 and higher education in 2014 and in the future. The summit focused on the future of post-secondary education, blended learning, gaming in learning and assessment, MOOCs and badges, and the rise of competency-based learning. It was the last topic on competency education, however, that drew some of the biggest interest and excitement among those in attendance.

Competency education is born out of the idea that secondary and higher education schools cannot be confined by the limitations of “seat time” and the Carnegie Unit (credit hours) when organizing how students will progress through their learning. In a competency education model, learning is organized by competencies – a student’s ability to transfer content and skills in and across content areas. Students are given the opportunity to hone their skills through formative assessment and then, when they are ready, demonstrate their understanding by thoughtfully developing and performing summative assessment tasks.

Competency education is considered a disruptor because of its divergence from the traditional “one size fits all” approach to learning that secondary and higher education schools have traditionally used. In the best examples of competency education models in schools today, students are given multiple opportunities and multiple pathways to demonstrate that they have reached competency. They are able to progress through their learning at their own pace. Their teachers provide both individualized instruction and coaching as they progress through their learning. Teachers work together to develop the quality performance assessments that will measure how well students have performed. The result is a model that increases rigor and more closely identifies exactly what it is students know and are able to do and to what degree.

Although competency education is starting to alter the landscape of K-12 school systems across the country, it is the potential for what the model will do for higher education that has groups like Bainbridge most excited. At the summit in San Diego, I and Dr. Sandra Dop, consultant for the Iowa Department of Education, shared our views on how competency education is disrupting secondary education in both New Hampshire and Iowa. We were joined by panelists from three higher education institutions who also are using competency education to disrupt higher education: Gary Brahm, Chancellor of Brandman University; Shannon Hughes, Senior Marketing Director of Udemy; and Becky Klein-Collins, Senior Director of Research and Policy Development for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).

During the discussion, we fielded introductory questions that gave us the opportunity to define what competency education is and what some of the barriers have been for us as we have implemented the model in our respective fields. The conversation then turned to one of explaining the power of competency education’s ability to increase equity and accessibility for learners of all ages and abilities. Those in attendance agreed that competency education has the power to significantly disrupt our system, which will play an integral role in shaping the future of secondary and higher education in the coming years.

Brian M. Stack is the National Association of Secondary School Principals 2017 New Hampshire Secondary School Principal of the Year. He is Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH, an author for Solution Tree, and also serves as an expert for, a division of the National Center for Learning Disabilities in Washington, DC. He lives with his wife Erica and his five children Brady, Cameron, Liam, Owen, and Zoey on the New Hampshire seacoast. You can follow Brian on Twitter @bstackbu or visit his blog.