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Aurora Institute

In Reflection: Can We Stop Ourselves From Slipping and Sliding Sideways?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

This article is the first in a three-part series of my final reflections on the field of competency-based education before I depart CompetencyWorks. You can find more about how to move from traditional to modern schools, including a series on what it means to modernize your schools to include competency education, at LearningEdge.

Each summer, the CompetencyWorks Advisory Board has a conversation about where we are and where we are going: we call it the “strategic reflection.” This year, the conversation was focused on how we keep our field and the movement toward personalized, competency-based education from slipping sideways.

States have created enabling policy for personalized, competency-based education with waivers, innovation zones, and pilots. Some have fully embraced it as their future. Yet, effective implementation and high quality examples of personalized, competency-based education are not expanding as quickly. Policy is outstripping practice.

Most initiatives have life cycles. As something becomes more popular, more schools and organizations sign on, and more organizations try to link their agenda on to the rising star. The promise shines much brighter than implementation given that so many are jumping in without adequate planning and support. Then those who do not share our commitment to equity attack. Few efforts can sustain this stage. Can we learn from those initiatives how to move through this stage and continue onward?

As much as we are still advancing, there are just as many indicators that we are losing traction. The examples of how the competency education field has been expanding, improving, and slipping are gathered from the members of the Advisory Board and many of you who have shared your concerns about the field over the past six months.

Celebrate Our Growth (Especially for Such a Sweeping Transformation)

  • Interest is increasing. More districts and schools are interested in competency-based education than ever before. At iNACOL18, the competency-based education strand was much larger than in previous years, with the topic now being integrated into many of the other strands.
  • More districts transitioning; more types of entry points. It’s great to have more entry points, as it means more districts can see their way toward a competency-based system. However, we don’t know if all entry points lead to high quality systems or at least what is needed to make sure they do. We need to do some work as a field to identify the most powerful entry points and sketch out possible implementation pathways for each.
  • Organizations are building capacity. Competency-based education is on the agenda of over 40 technical assistance providers and national and regional organizations. There is more collaboration than ever before. When organizations work together, knowledge is exchanged, and the strength of the field grows.  
  • States are creating innovation space: Nearly every state has increased innovation space for competency education, with several states introducing dynamic pilot initiatives or setting expectations for competency-based diplomas.
  • Information management systems are becoming more student-centered. Although we still aren’t where we want to be, there are viable information management systems that create transparency about growth in both academics and the habits of success.
  • Our understanding of what it means to become a lifelong learner is improving. We’ve clarified the mindsets and skills students need to learn based on research. The introduction of Building Blocks for Learning provides a much deeper understanding of student agency beyond choice and voice.
  • Frameworks have been created to organize knowledge building and improvement. There are frameworks for quality and equity as well as a logic model to explain competency education thanks to all of you who contributed your insights. Other frameworks such as the Transcend/Lindsay/Summit one provides alternatives so districts and schools can have choices.
  • Literature about competency education has grown. When we started there was barely any literature on the topic, now there are multiple books to guide implementation. Many organizations have developed resources that can help districts get started. (I’m trying to put some of this together at LearningEdge to make it easier to find what you need.)

What else might you add to list list of strengths? I know there are plenty more to celebrate.

Legitimate Concerns and Real Challenges

However, there are legitimate concerns and real challenges, perhaps even barriers, in the field. As a field, each of us needs to take ownership. What can you do from your perspective to help address each of these?

We are still not producing evidence that personalized, competency-based education produces improvements in achievement and equity. Despite expansion of competency-based schools, research and evaluation remain thin. There have been a few stories from elementary schools such as Windsor-Locks, Westminster, and Parker-Varney that in the first few years, math and ELA scores increased. However, a handful of proof points is inadequate to demonstrate that personalized, competency-based education is better than the traditional model.

Can we show some indicators of improvements? Is attendance up and suspension down? Are students becoming better learners? Are they putting more effort in? Are students demonstrating greater growth? Are more students reaching proficiency and beyond — not just in math and ELA, but in other domains? Are more students learning at higher levels beyond the first two rungs of Bloom’s taxonomy? What if we focused on our more vulnerable students? Are the educational lives and attainment of students of color, low-income students, or students with disabilities improved? Do teachers have greater job satisfaction or are there indicators of them improving their practice? Without some indicators of improvement, we remain reliant on the argument that it is better to align with the research on learning as competency-based education hopes to do rather than continue with antiquated belief systems driving the traditional system.

It’s possible that there are gains we don’t know about. Some argue that the state accountability exams that are used to monitor achievement simply will not capture the real benefits of competency education. Others suggest that there are structural issues, such as too many standards forcing too much attention on assessments on highly granular steps in learning and a “cover the curriculum” mentality, that are inhibiting the model. Certainly, neither government nor funders have yet to invest in an evaluation that is co-designed with well-developed districts to ask the types of questions that are aligned with the model itself.

Instructional knowledge and/or capacity is inadequate to meet students where they are and spur growth toward grade level expectations. Part of the reason we may not be showing the types of achievement results we are hoping for is that we continue to “cover the curriculum” and pass students on at the end of each semester without repairing their gaps. Too many teachers have told me that they don’t think it is fair to students to have to take a test at the end of the year if they haven’t been exposed to the grade level standards even if they do not have the prerequisite knowledge to be able to actually learn and apply that knowledge. Thus, scaffolding remains an upward ladder to access curriculum rather than something that is designed to dig down and repair gaps.

Too often I hear an either/or approach to instruction: either organize instruction to meet students at the lowest level, which sounds too much like tracking (if you see that practice, challenge it), or delivering the same curriculum to every student. Some educators have spoken to me about the difficulty of personalizing and differentiating instruction when the instructional resources made by the districts emphasize scope, sequence, and pacing guides. There obviously have to be third, fourth and fifth ways to instructionally respond to students — ways that take into consideration the Building Blocks for Learning (often referred to as their social-emotional skills); students’ prior knowledge and the gaps they need repaired or strengthened; the unique instructional features of the domain; the skills of the teacher; and the capacity and resources available to work closely with students over a period of time. Think of it as the zone of proximal development that takes more into consideration than simply where students are on the learner continuum. This is an area of high need and will require practitioners and experts from a range of areas to come together domain by domain.  

I have also heard the concern raised that the two to three decades of teaching grade level standards means that teachers haven’t been developing the instructional capacity for deeper domain-specific instruction such as learning progressions, formative assessment, and performance-based assessments. Teachers are not to blame; the system has been sending very strong signals that scope, sequence, and pacing guides are what matters. Our challenge is to find a meaningful balance: personalizing and differentiating in a way that is based upon the best of what we know about learning progressions.

Quality is lower than desired. There are few examples of well-developed models of personalized, competency-based education. Another reason we may not be generating the types of results we want is because we still aren’t putting in the full range of practices to create personalized and competency-based systems. We know we have a quality problem. You can read about it local papers. We believe that the reason Maine modified their state policy regarding proficiency-based diplomas was because of the problematic of practice that the less motivated, compliance-oriented districts put into place.

More districts and schools are beginning the transition before we have been able to fully define quality and effective implementation. Even our most developed models still haven’t worked out all the kinks, including fully preparing students with the Building Blocks for Learning so they are effective lifelong learners; developing systems of assessment that include higher-order skills and application of learning; instructionally meeting students where they are; eliminating the practice of passing students on with gaps not addressed and without plans to address them; and taking the lid off the ceiling of learning.  

Furthermore, the problems of practice are being used by some to argue that competency-based education is ineffective. It’s true it isn’t really a fair argument — just think of the problems of practice that are rampant in the traditional system. However, we are the new kid on the block and we need to demonstrate that personalizing and designing for competence is going to benefit all students, including those who perceive themselves as high achieving because their GPA is high. These problems of practice are generally evident where districts and schools haven’t understood that competency-based education requires changes in culture, pedagogy, and structure. Too often they approach it as simply a few technical changes. These problems of practice and poor implementation appear to be more evident where districts and schools are complying with state policy.

There are now two frameworks available to help people think about quality. One is the Quality Principles framework by CompetencyWorks, and the other is Instructional Look Fors, Site Level Conditions and Faculty and Leadership Mindsets developed by a partnership of Lindsay Unified School District, Summit Public Schools, and Transcend. Frameworks alone aren’t going to correct the situation. We are going to need to do more.

Many schools are burdened by fear. Many of the innovators of competency-based education have used strategies to provide teachers opportunity to learn about it and vote to move forward. This suggests that there was already some degree of respect, trust, and inclusive leadership strategies being used in the district and school. However, I’ve heard from many technical assistance providers that one of the most challenging features to address in schools that are recently moving in the direction of competency-based education is high levels of distrust. The cultures of fear and distrust have grown with the blame and shame cultures of top-down accountability examinations used to label students, teachers, and schools. Given that we have identified that one of the quality principles is a culture of inclusivity and belonging that is foundational for creating a learning organization, it’s clear that we need to identify, or if necessary, develop strategies for building trust in schools.

We haven’t mastered communicating what a personalized, competency-based system is and means to students. All communication is local and has to be developed in the context of a local community or region. This is part of the reason that we have so many terms for competency education (such as proficiency-based, mastery-based, and in at least one district, performance-based). However, we still aren’t strong enough in explaining what it is and it isn’t. There is just too much confusion. Foundations and national organizations can add to the confusion with branded initiatives. Vendors of digital tools don’t help as they claim any phrase they think will help market their product and soon thereafter broad educational concepts are reduced to the idea they are a digital tool.  

We’ve also identified the problem that national organizations may be contributing to the confusion about what it means to have a personalized, competency-based school. I hope everyone will do an audit to make sure you aren’t advancing that CBE is about self-paced or grading.


We haven’t yet raised the ceiling of learning. Although I believe it is more important for us to figure out how to develop more responsive schools and instruction that allows every student to be growing and progressing toward grade level, it is also important for students to be able to soar beyond grade level expectations if we are going to have high quality systems. This doesn’t always mean higher grade levels. Moving faster through the continuum of standards is not necessarily better. Soaring beyond can also mean deeper or more challenging learning. We aren’t going to reach that 16th quality principle advance upon demonstrated mastery until we talk the lid off of learning.

– – –

I’ve hit on a lot of issues. And I think there are likely other reasons that we are slipping and sliding sideways. From your perspective, what do you see as a problem or a dynamic that we need to address in order to pull ourselves into a forward momentum again?

Read the Entire Series:

  1. In Reflection: Can We Stop Ourselves From Slipping and Sliding Sideways?
  2. In Reflection: Eight Lessons Learned Over the Past Decade
  3. In Reflection: The Challenges and Opportunities Before Us