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CompetencyWorks Releases New Reports on Key Issues in Competency Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

In advance of the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education, CompetencyWorks released new draft reports exploring key issues challenging the field of competency education:

Competency education is expanding nationally – sometimes led by educators at the school and district level, and sometimes introduced by leadership at the state level – to effect change in the purpose of education from sorting students to ensuring that students learn to the levels of college and career readiness. This is an enormous leap with enormous consequences.

To make sure that we were understanding as many of these consequences as possible, CompetencyWorks designed a participatory process leading up to the Summit where practitioners could contribute their knowledge through Technical Advisory Groups (TAGs). Through the TAG process, organizations, schools, and leaders engaged in deep conversations around these issues and shared their collective insights, which we incorporated into these reports. Thank you to the 100+ people who participated in the Technical Advisory Groups to develop the ideas in the paper.  

During the Summit, attendees will discuss these key issues, collaborate on the field’s challenges, and brainstorm solutions and best practices to advance K-12 competency-based education, using these reports to guide discussions. After the Summit, we will revise these reports based on the attendees’ input.

If you didn’t get a chance to participate in a TAG and would like to chime in, please leave comments either here or in one of the blogs based on the papers. It is just as helpful to us at this point to know what you find really helpful or powerful as it is to know what isn’t or what is missing.

Four Emerging Issues in Competency Education


The role of public education has never been more important it is the bedrock of democracy. Competency-based structures for education hold promise as uniquely powerful models for fostering equity, but only if equity is an intentional design feature of those structures.

In the paper In Pursuit of Equality: A Framework for Equity Strategies in Competency-Based Education, three important concepts are introduced:

  • A definition of educational equity based on the National Equity Project to guide the field’s conversations.
  • A set of equity strategies that every district and school should fully integrate into instructional capacity.
  • A framework that includes a set of guiding principles for ensuring that competency-based education is fully designed to support equity strategies and ensure all students are growing and progressing.

We used a series of questions to help us tackle the equity:

  • How can we promote equity within a personalized, competency-based system?
  • How can competency-based learning systems and schools make outcomes more transparent and take responsibility for addressing equity issues?
  • What do we know about improving equity? What elements should be integrated into competency-based structures? What practices should be integrated into any classroom?
  • How can we work together as a field to ensure that competency-based systems take full advantage of what we know about equity strategies to benefit all students, especially those who have been historically underserved?

For those of you who like to write or would like to leave comments, we’d be interested in hearing your responses to these questions in case we missed important ideas in the paper.


Quality is necessary to realize the full potential of competency-based systems; however, defining quality, especially in an emerging field, is not easy because ideas are in flux, knowledge is developing, implementation of even the best designs is likely to be bumpy, and there is little evaluation to provide feedback. Weak design or piecemeal or poor quality implementation of competency-based education could have a damaging effect on the ability of competency-based education to advance or be sustained. Certainly, it will not provide the benefit to students realized in fully developed models.

The paper In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System seeks to identify what makes up the structures of a competency-based system and launches an exploration of what we might ask or see in a competency-based district and school that would be identified as high quality. In the paper, what creates the learning environments of a school are organized into four components: structure, culture, pedagogy, and learning experiences (there are obviously other operational parts of schools and districts as well). The paper then explores nine domains of a competency-based structure with suggested questions and look-fors that would open discussion about quality.

We need to get these domains right if we are going to address the misconceptions that continue to follow competency-based education (although those people who critique competency education because they think it is technology-enabled learning may just stew in their confusion until they get out and visit a competency-based school). While reading the paper, please consider these questions and let us know if there are ways of improving it.

  • What are the common elements of the structure in competency-based schools?
  • What are the features one might expect to see in a quality competency-based school?
  • What are the approaches that can be used to promote quality in a competency-based system?

We are also seeking more examples and ‘look-fors.’

Meeting Students Where They Are

In the traditional system, grade-level curriculum is delivered to students based on their age, whereas competency-based systems assume that schools should be organized to meet students where they are in terms of academic, cognitive, and lifelong learning skills (growth mindset, habits of work and learning, metacognition, and social and emotional skills).

In the paper Meeting Students Where They Are, written by a team from reDesign, the driving questions are:

  • How do we know where students are in terms of academic and lifelong learning skills?
  • What do we do, once we know?
  • Which strategies help us navigate systemic constraints to address students’ individual needs and strengths?

reDesign dives deep into explaining the process for knowing where students are in their learning. The second section of the paper then explores what needs to be in place in a school so that teachers can better meet students where they are. The final section identifies five strategies that schools must put in place in order to minimize the impact of the traditional environment’s focus on organizing learning by age and time, which most districts operate within.

As you review this paper, we are particularly interested in whether there are different approaches to meeting kids where they are than the one described in the paper. It may be that there are different contexts that inform the strategies that teachers use to meet students where they are. (FYI – here is a great story about Lincoln Elementary in Idaho, which decided to meet students where they are by using flexible grouping to make sure students were working on the precise reading skills that they needed. The good news – reading levels JUMPED.)


The purpose of the paper Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency-Based Education is to build an overarching strategy for policy to support systems change over the long haul toward competency-based systems. Four threshold concepts are introduced and explored: certifying learning, assessment literacy, pedagogical innovations based on learning sciences, and meeting kids where they are.

Driving questions around policy within the report include:

  • What are the issues, or threshold concepts, that state policymakers could be thinking about as part of a long game for transformation to student-centered learning?
  • What main challenges need to be addressed in the long term to create enabling policies and structures needed to support a fully-developed personalized, competency-based learning system?
  • What issues can policy start to tackle to address the challenges and create sustainable, coherent systems that help all students succeed for the long term?

The issues of equity, policy for the long-term, meeting students where they are, and quality are all important to expanding the field of competency education. They are not issues to be quickly resolved but instead are deep understanding and capacity building to be developed. Once again, thanks to everyone who has participated and will do so in the future. This field could not have advanced as far as it has without the generous, collaborative spirit of its leaders. Stay tuned for more: CompetencyWorks and iNACOL will be sharing various sections of the reports in greater detail through an upcoming blog series.

Please join us in sharing these reports:

  • New @CompetencyWorks reports out today on #EdEquity, Quality, #EdPolicy, & Meeting #Students Where They Are
  • JUST RELEASED: @CompetencyWorks reports on #EdEquity, Quality, #EdPolicy, & Meeting #Students Where They Are

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