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Aurora Institute

In Reflection: The Challenges and Opportunities Before Us

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

This article is the final 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.

In this final article, I’m going to make some suggestions on what we can do about some of those hand-wringing problems facing us and then wrap up with the opportunities that bring me hand-fluttering excitement.

Facing Up to the Challenges

I honestly don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer when I talk about hand-wringing problems. I just firmly believe that we need to deal with problems that are both emerging and currently facing us, or at least have well-laid plans in hand. Otherwise, they really could be our downfall; the movement will start to dissipate and we’ll have to wait for the next cycle that will re-introduce the ideas of personalized learning and competency-based education under a new name.

Don’t turn to the funders to tackle the tough issues. Funders (and I’ve been a program officer myself) tend to like to fund the new: the new initiative, the new branded approach, the new report, or the new convening about a niche issue that has never been dealt with formally before. Each is important (although please stop with the hyphenated branded initiatives), but sometimes organizations or consortiums of organizations need time and money (and even a noodge) to deal with the things that aren’t going well or get ready for those things looming on the horizon. But that’s not what foundations generally do. Philanthropy is about what’s possible, not what might make it not possible. Thus, to address challenges requires leadership. Not simply organizational leadership, but the kind that helps people bring their resources together to tackle problems bigger than themselves and their organization.  

There are three things brewing right now that we need to deal with: opposition to and attacks on CBE; misunderstanding, narrow implementation, and low quality models (this also gets described as change management or scaling); and getting serious about what it means to have a proficiency-based diploma or competency-based credits.

Can We Control the Message?

A few weeks ago, I was alerted that a member of the Michigan State Board of Education had invited a retired English teacher from Pennsylvania to come speak in Lansing about the problems with competency-based education (go to 58.25). Pennsylvania? There isn’t a great deal of CBE activity in the Keystone State, so the likelihood that Peter Greene, a contributor to Forbes, knows much about competency-based education is slim. According to his comments, he seemed to be talking about his experiences in the 1980s. However, he did what the legislator wanted: his testimony questioned the value of competency-based education and affirmed the legislator’s position.

Several months ago, a woman not from Maine decided that she knew a lot about the implementation issues of proficiency-based learning in Maine (which in this case were legitimate concerns) and wrote a piece for the Boston Globe. We researched her organization and found that they had received funding from the Koch organization. I’m not saying that the Koch boys have targeted CBE, but it does give us a sense of the values and analysis that are driving negative attention to CBE.

At the national level, we try to minimize reaction to critics so that we don’t add fuel to the flame. We prefer to stay focused on talking about the good stuff about personalized learning and competency-based education (remember: I’m not talking about technological driven-solutions here). However, at the local level, these voices are real and organized. A few organized people can knock our advances backward. They exhaust superintendents and principals. We haven’t been counting the number of districts and schools that started down the path toward CBE but slowed down or stopped after encountering opposition. But we know it is happening.

There are different concerns being raised. Sometimes it is high achieving parents who are afraid their children aren’t going to be as competitive for college. This concern can be easily addressed by completing what NESSC started with the proficiency pledge by colleges to accept proficiency-based transcripts. Issues of race and class superiority are driving some concerns, as we occasionally hear about parents not wanting their children to be learning with those children. There are ideologically driven groups that want to keep the status quo rather than improve schools so that all students are successful. I’ve heard rumors that interest groups such as the textbook industry (with its scope, sequence, and pacing guides) and testing industries are starting to realize that personalized, competency-based education may impact their markets.

And sometimes the concerns are warranted, as when schools introduce new grading policies before putting into place the really important cultural, pedagogical, and structural changes. The best-case scenario is that concerns about problematic implementation result in mid-course corrections and deeper understanding of competency education. And sometimes, as in the case of Peter Greene, people just haven’t developed an adequate understanding of personalized, competency-based education or the imaginative strength to envision schools where learning starts with engaging and motivating students, and instructional support is the variable.

What can we do?

We need research. The field is bigger than we can monitor by word of mouth. We can survey districts and schools to find out how many are putting into place the 10 distinguishing features (or some other way to capture the question of how personalized and how competency-based are you). We can ask how long they’ve been working in this direction. We can ask if they are encountering opposition and what the concerns are. And we can monitor how many slow down (and there is nothing wrong with going slow to go fast) or stop after a while and why. Interviewing schools will allow us to go deeper into the dynamics.

We need to get smart about communication. We need to ensure our own national and regional organization complete mid-course corrections in our communication strategies. It would be a lot better if we were using focus-group informed messages. We also need to figure out a way to co-design a network that is driven by local and state leaders (because communication is always local and contextualized) to support them in becoming super-star communicators about CBE.

CBE is hard to talk about because it’s second-order change. The beliefs and purpose are different from what we all grew up with. Words can only get us so far because words are always going to be linear. It’s the nature of oral and written speech. Given that it’s hard to explain second-order change in a linear fashion, we are going to need more visuals, pictures, and animated videos to explain what PL and CBE are, why they’re important, what they look like, and what schools need to do. And stories. We need lots of them — and we need students, parents, and teachers to be telling them.

Finally, let’s drop the words “new” and “innovation” and “disruptive” from our vocabularies. With our communities under so much pressure from economic, social, and environmental changes, new and innovative can be triggers. Stay focused on the students. We know we can do better if we make sure we are teaching students based on what the research tells us about how children and adults learn.

We need to organize and be preemptive. Local and state leaders need to organize those who are supportive to be writing letters in support of CBE before concerns are raised. We need to celebrate and recognize those schools for courage, perseverance, and making a difference in student’s lives. We need to contact policymakers to talk about the benefits of competency-based education, and we need to do it over and over and over. Funders can make a difference by funding state-level advocacy efforts. (Take a chapter from the Mott Foundation. Why does the 21st Century Community Learning Centers survive year after year? It’s because state level advocacy has been funded from the get-go to support it.)

I worry that if we only talk to each other, we aren’t going to be able to develop the strategies we need to sustain our movement if attacks increase. Our field is led by educators, and we tend to turn to more education and more communication as the solution. But if isolated local opposition becomes coordinated, that’s not going to work. We are going to have to learn how to develop and use power and public will. That means strategically building allies. Let’s bring in people who know how to run campaigns. Let’s turn to efforts in other sectors that have been able to sustain coordinated opposition. Let’s get smart about what it is going to take to be successful.

Quality, Quality, Quality  

Let me be clear: when I talk about quality, I mean equity as well. The two are so intertwined in the concept of competency-based education that it really is difficult to separate them. Just think about it. If a group of students, based on some common trait, are not progressing within a competency-based system, it is an equity issue. It is also a quality issue, as there is some flaw in the ability to be responsive to students or there are some dynamics at play that are undermining student engagement and motivation. Vice versa, in that if you aren’t vigilant in looking at how different groups of students are doing in your school in terms of growth and making sure they are getting on trajectories toward graduation with all the knowledge and skills they are going to need, it’s likely that inequitable institutional patterns are at play. If your students aren’t learning, growing, and mastering, then how high quality can your system really be?

If we don’t get a handle on low quality models and shallow implementation, we are going to have a huge problem on our hands. We are already a bit behind the eight ball on this; poor implementation was part of the reason we lost traction in Maine. There are lots of reasons for the quality problem, including leaders and educators not really understanding the big ideas behind personalized learning and competency-based education; lack of understanding about how the traditional system contributes to low achievement and inequity; not laying the groundwork in terms of reshaping the culture around a different set of values and beliefs; inadequate attention to pedagogy based on the research on learning; and the compliance mentality of doing the bare minimum of what your principal, superintendent, or state policy is saying you have to do.

There are some significant field issues that have left us vulnerable. First, we can’t yet define the core elements of what makes a high quality system. In the past year, CompetencyWorks has tried to put a few things in place that can be stepping stones toward crisply defining what makes a high quality system and how to get there, including developing a logic model and quality principles. However, there are so many different ways to design schools and learning experiences, it is difficult to say one practice or set of practices is better than another. Sometimes I wonder if looking at processes might be more helpful; but there again, it’s difficult with personalized and differentiated approaches. Second, we know that instructional capacity makes a huge difference. You might put all the structures in place, but if instruction and assessment aren’t aligned with the research on learning, we know we won’t see meaningful benefits for students.

What can we do?

Networks of commited schools that are willing to push themselves toward quality and benefits for students and teachers. There are networks of schools organized around the improvement sciences. What if we turned to the improvement sciences as a way for us to develop higher quality systems?

Establish carrots for districts or schools to publicly commit to creating high quality and equitable competency-based schools. What if an organization or state said, do you want to be competency-based and personalized? If so, you have to do annual assessments using a framework with a number of trained peers from other schools and those assessments are public. Those assessment frameworks can serve as a way of organizing practices and even organizing benchmarking to identify the most well-developed practices. If you are in the club, you get invited to a meeting once a year and are recognized in some way for your leadership.

Co-design a research initiative. What if districts and school leaders partnered with researchers to co-design research that would look at growth and achievement in developing lifelong learning skills, academic knowledge and skills, and the transferable skills to apply that knowledge? Perhaps student-centered (or trying to become so) information management systems might be willing to partner as well.

Make it a lot easier to understand, design, and implement. The innovators were on their own, figuring things out along the way. Now we have pilots and networks of schools all launching the transition at the same time. We’ve got to pull together resources and make them flexible enough that schools can start with different entry points and have different paths toward competency-based education. It’s likely that this is going to have be a collaborative process with districts, schools, and intermediary organizations. It’s going to take research, documenting, and very creative ways to disseminate. If we put our minds to it, I bet the field could get it done in a year.

Figure out which metrics matter. We’ve got to get beyond math and ELA as our only indicators of success. Our definition of student success has broadened, and so must our metrics. I’m talking about metrics to support robust continuous improvement, not accountability. Although we aren’t as strong in this area as we need to be, we need to be thinking about indicators that are aligned with the science of learning and can provide feedback for school and instructional feedback. We can learn from Jobs for the Future’s Robust and Equitable Measures to Identify Quality Schools (REMIQS). We can get ideas from New Zealand and other countries. What’s important is that we unlock ourselves from the top-down accountability mentality that dominates our educational system.

Own the problems of practice. We need to take responsibility for the problems of practice. It needs to be documented and unpacked about why one set of practices are problematic and another are on the road to quality. Perhaps meetings and conference sessions should be organized around lessons from our mistakes, not an overview of what we are trying to do. If transparency, honesty, and courage are needed in our schools, can we somehow embrace them in our field?

Getting Clear on What A Proficiency-Based Diploma Entails

Once a district commits to competency-based education, they are actually committing to a competency-based or proficiency-based diploma. We swing the phrase around, but have we ever unpacked it to really think about what would have to be in place? It looks like high schools and redesigning high schools is about to swing back into the education improvement agenda and is likely to include competency-based education. Before we go too far down that path, we should — as a field — get clear on what it means to graduate students from a competency-based high school.

I’m not going to try to unpack it all here (but oooh I sure would love to work on a project like that at LearningEdge). However, here are a couple of things to think about:

  1. How are we going to be sure that the expectation for specific competencies and/or standards at one school is going to be the same at another across the state? What are the implications if they aren’t? This will take us down the road of mastery transcripts that might say what a graduate know and can do (and what they can’t) and moderation. (Check out the upcoming articles about New Zealand’s levels and NCEA to push your thinking a bit.)
  2. How do we think about the minimum expectation for what students know and can do while still creating opportunities for excellence, high achievement, and developing one’s aptitudes and high interest skills? Students aren’t ever going to know the same thing, nor would we want a system where we produced widgets. The equity challenge is to have a minimum set of expectations while also ensuring historically underserved students soar beyond it.
  3. What are the implications when students might not master all the expectations? Are they really not going to get a diploma? Should we be thinking about certificates of achievement or mastery transcripts that indicate what you do know?
  4. How do we create a system that can respond to the students who enter with substantial gaps in knowledge and skills, underdeveloped Building Blocks for Learning skills, or have interrupted education (leaving school or dropping out for a while but returning at a later date)?
  5. How do we get out of the trap of traditional lecturing about content in high school courses and introduce dynamic, engaging, and motivating learning experiences where students develop high level skills and content?

I’m sure you have other questions. As we begin to build better understanding, it will be easier to start to think more deeply on redesigning high schools. It’s a huge shift for high school teachers to shift from isolated classrooms lecturing to a group of students to active, engaging, motivating learning experiences where students are doing the work. That is, they are learning and demonstrating their learning along the way. It’s important to think about what needs to be in place to support secondary school teachers to make this shift.


Periodically, I can start to imagine the third and fourth iteration of what our schools might look like. It’s not particularly easy for me to stretch my imagination that far, but when it happens I get so excited. Here are a few of the dynamics that I think are possible. Maybe not tomorrow but they might be around the corner.

When Teachers Become Expert Practitioners: What a difference a decade makes. We talked about the research on learning early on, but it heavily emphasized cognitive science and it was sometimes difficult to figure out the implications. As the research on cognition and psychology became more accessible (and, in the past two years, increasingly integrated), we now are at a turning point.

It’s the practitioners and practitioner knowledge that are going to carry this to the next level, especially if there are partnership with researchers/experts. The research itself has often been developed in discrete pieces. However, when you are dealing with a living, breathing child or a teen whose emotions are changing, whose brain is being worked hard, whose social life dominates their thoughts, teachers don’t get to turn to one finding or even a set of findings. They are going to be tapping into a full range of knowledge about learning and making on-the-spot judgements about how to optimize learning. It won’t happen overnight, but the more teachers become familiar with the learning sciences, the more they become the experts. They are going to know more than the researchers themselves, who tend to operate in niche areas.

Active, Engaged, and Motivated Learners: I just had the experience of picking out new website photos that would bring to life the idea of modern schools. I didn’t want it to be about technology. But what do you look for in a modern, personalized, competency-based school? And then I realized — it is kids alive with learning. Once we start taking the Building Blocks for Learning seriously (I heard tools and resources will be available next spring?), we are going to flip-flop school. Everything is going to change when we are helping students build the skills and mindsets of learning. Agency won’t be about choice and voice, although those will be helpful reminders to make sure students have some control over their environment and learning. Agency is going to be about talking with students about what they were experiencing and how they managed their learning process. Agency is going to be students with the skills to learn even if their teacher carries a basket of bias and low expectations. Agency is going to unleash a new dynamic that will require us to challenge the power dynamics between students and educators that characterize our schools.

Greater Diversity Will Lead to Greater Creativity and Deeper Knowledge: Some days, I celebrate how we are moving ourselves step by step toward an inclusive field that values diversity, and sometimes I’m raging because I was asked to be on an advisory that is all white (and declined with explanation). I do think that as a field we are on a path toward valuing diversity. And when I think about what might be possible, I get so excited!

Imagine the day when cultural responsiveness and personalization are so integrated you can’t have one without the other. Imagine the day when our entire field embraces reconciliation and healing, with every meeting starting by honoring Native people and their land. Imagine the day when our organizations are so diverse that race and racism are fully discussable and therefore visible so that they can be addressed. Imagine a day when we have so embraced students with disabilities that we fully integrate self-determination and self-advocacy as cores to how we help every student learn so they have the skills to create the conditions in which they will thrive.

Moving from Pockets of Innovation to Networks of Learners: Before we started CompetencyWorks, Susan Patrick and I did a scan. We identified that there were very small pockets of innovation across the country, but people didn’t know of each other’s work. Now at iNACOL18, there were so many CBE advocates and they have such strong relationships that the annual meet-up stretched from before and after and throughout the entire reception hall. Few think of themselves as innovators doing something new. Almost everyone has become a learner. Now that we are all learners, we can become even better at learning together. We are going to need common language and processes to make it easier and easier to accumulate, disseminate, and transfer knowledge. This is a powerful capacity and will sustain our movement through ups and downs.

I’ll close with one final reminder: This is hard, emotional work. There are good days and some really, really hard days. Even if we don’t get everything right immediately, what is being learned, as long as we share it, will go a long way to help those that follow. Be kind to yourselves and those you work with, and remember to celebrate. Celebrate the lessons from mistakes as much as you celebrate achievement.

And always do what’s best for kids.

See you at LearningEdge!

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