Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Nine Structural Domains of Competency Education, Part I

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started

This is the eighth blog in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and how we might be able to advance the field.

The contribution of the participants of the Technical Advisory Group on quality was so powerful that we ended up moving far beyond our expectations in terms of the development of defining competency-based structures and what high quality would look like. In this article we explore a a way to think about what structure in schools and districts mean. This afternoon’s article will then highlight the features of quality we might look for.  As always, we really want your feedback on these ideas. We are particularly interested in ways that we might integrate the ideas introduced in the paper In Pursuit of Equality: A Framework for Equity Strategies in Competency-Based Education into the quality framework.

Developed by 100 innovators in 2011, the working definition of a high-quality competency-based education was designed to build a shared understanding of how a competency-based system functions. However, it does not precisely describe what the competency-based structure (beliefs, policies, and operational mechanisms) is that would replace the traditional structure. In this section, we hope to outline the specific structures that districts and schools should have in place while still highlighting the innovations and variations developed by districts and schools. At times, structures that are considered “must-haves” or “non-negotiables” are identified.

What are the Structures that Make Up a Competency-Based District and School?

Think of the structure as the architecture of a house. It’s the foundation, frame, and load-bearing walls. This paper organizes the structure of a district and school into nine domains, with each domain made up of the beliefs, policies, and processes that support learning and teaching. The way that the structure operates is likely to be shaped by policies and funding established by outside entities, including state or federal government, as well and the broader education system, including accreditation bodies and vendors.

Making the transition from the time-based system to a competency-based one requires the process of deconstructing the traditional structure and constructing a new one with great intentionality to ensure that it works effectively. To understand a structure, it is helpful to think about them as a mix of beliefs, policies, and operational processes.


The beliefs that people bring to their work will have a powerful impact on the entire organization. There will be a formal set of policies and processes based on espoused beliefs and an informal one based on the actual beliefs brought to bear. Thus, understanding the beliefs underlying each domain of the structure is important in identifying strengths and weaknesses in the competency-based structure. There are two beliefs that are absolutely essential to a quality structure for competency-based education: 1) that all students can and should learn to high standards and 2) the role of the growth mindset, with adults developing it within themselves as well as supporting it in students. These two beliefs demand that adults in the system challenge assumptions and unlearn habits and practices built upon sorting students and the fixed mindset.

Other important beliefs include:

  • The job of educators includes empowering learners to build the lifelong learning skills they need to own and manage their education.
  • That instructional design and practices should be based on research in the learning sciences and the field of teaching, including attention to productive feedback, learning progressions, and attention to working memory.
  • That students will have personalized paths toward mastery and graduation.
  • That providing a bias-free learning environment requires intentional effort to root out implicit bias.

Because students are active participants in the culture and operation of the school, their beliefs will also shape the quality of the competency-based structure. Students need to be supported in developing a growth mindset; they must believe that the adults care about them and want them to be successful, they must believe that learning is relevant to their lives, and they must feel safe and respected. These are all beliefs shaped by the adults in the schools, although life experiences outside the school may also be influential. Thus, strategies for students to develop habits of work and learning, social and emotional learning skills such as managing their inner voice, and metacognition are important processes in helping them have and hold the beliefs for learning.


Within the domains of a competency-based structure, policies refer to a “deliberate system of principles to guide decisions.” Within this discussion, the focus is on the specific policies at the district and school levels that can contribute to high quality design and implementation. Or another way to ask it: “What policies are in place in a quality structure for competency-based education? When you see a poorly developed structure for competency-based education within a district or school, what policies are missing?” Issues specific to state policy are being developed in the accompanying paper Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education.

Organizational and Operational Processes

Districts and schools are made up of a number of processes, with the most important set of them related to helping students learn. We have all grown up with the traditional system, so it is hard to imagine districts and schools organizing themselves around anything other than academic domains, courses, semesters, and A-F grading. We forget that this was originally created as a set of processes that optimized efficiency.

One way to think about these processes is through a set of four questions:

  1. What work is needed to prepare each and every student for life, college, and careers?
  2. What is the theory of action or strategy to bring about this change? What are the core functions in implementing that strategy?
  3. How is effectiveness optimized?
  4. How is the organization of the district and school designed to support this work?

Within each of these four questions, we now identify nine structural domains.

Click Image to Enlarge

In Part II we’ll explore each of these domains.

Follow this blog series:



Learn more: