Skip to content
Aurora Institute

North Carolina: Optimizing Best Practices through a Convening of Thought Leaders

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Natalie Abel

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

North Carolina“In education, what is not focused on pedagogy is politics.” This is how Tony Habit, President of North Carolina New Schools, opened a convening in Raleigh, NC on December 18th. He emphasized that our focus in competency education must begin and end with the work of teachers in order to transform education; all conversations must be grounded in a deep understanding of the work they do everyday, and we must focus our efforts on how best to support their work.

This summit, titled Preparing Educators for the Competency Learning Revolution, was a convening of innovators, researchers, practitioners, and thought leaders in the competency education field, designed to share ideas, resources, and best practices to remain on the cutting edge of innovation. Presenters discussed the national policy landscape for competency-based learning, identified potential barriers and enablers to implementation, conferred over the role of technology in competency-based systems, and began developing a concept paper exploring statewide competency-based implementation.

The group of thought leaders operated as a “think tank” to identify enablers, barriers, and readiness factors regarding a state’s transition to competency education. Glenn Kleiman, Executive Director at the Friday Institute, and Tony Habit, President of NC New Schools, opened the summit, welcomed the attendees, and opened the floor for invigorating, honest, and wide-ranging conversations around all aspects of competency education.

Defining Competency Ed – Four Unique Perspectives

Four presenters discussed competency education from unique perspectives, each based in his or her own experiences and successes. Julia Freeland, Research Fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, defined competency-based education as a philosophy, a policy, and a new set of practices in which students advance upon mastery. By “philosophy” Julia recommended that leaders engage in higher order conversations about implementing competency-based systems before diving into nitty gritty details. There needs to be an initial high-level understanding on the purpose, course of action, and ultimate goals of the new system prior to hedging out details regarding implementation. By “policy,” Julia posed the question: what accountability systems need to be created to support competency-based education? By “practice” Julia explained that competency-based education can align with other learning movements, such as professional learning communities.

Stephanie Krauss, Senior Fellow for The Forum for Youth Investment, defined competency as the composition of skill sets, mindsets, and content, all of which lead to measurable behaviors. She emphasized developing the social and emotional aspects of students, as well as creating a system where competencies are measurable and dynamic. Stephanie defined four policy areas that must be addressed to align competency education with the Common Core and other standards, all of which are restrictive barriers bound by time:

  • Funding: calendar enrollment; seat time; federal/state higher ed financial aid is tied to enrollment.
  • Accountability reporting and data collection: metrics are anchored in time.
  • Enrollment periods: student calendars; requirements for hours and days per year.
  • Program and design requirements: the program approval process and numbers/metrics you must show are bound by time.

Paul Leather, Deputy Commissioner of Education for the New Hampshire Department of Education, emphasized that competency-based education is not just a movement, and the work requires deep champions for sustainability. The work is not easy, and flexibility in policy is essential, especially in the early stages, allowing innovations to occur naturally; policy pieces should be added as the competency system becomes more developed. Paul highlighted three phases of the competency education policy landscape: research and evaluation, building, and creating pathways.

Allison Hramiec, Director of Instruction at the Boston Day and Evening Academy, emphasized the essential pieces of competency education developed at BDEA: clearly articulating competencies and benchmarks, shifting grading to competencies, and creating a quality performance assessment system. This education model prevents gaps in learning, promoting student ownership, student confidence, and deep articulation of understanding through student voice and choice. She urges that educators must model respect, collaboration, and a sharing of best practices as a professional learning community for optimal student support.


The leaders in the room discussed common misconceptions surrounding competency education and attempted to identify major kinks in the system where competency education is being implemented.

1. Do more than create buy-in; engage the community. It is vitally important to create more than just community buy-in; for successful implementation to occur, leaders must engage community members through multiple communication platforms and explain all changes thoroughly. It is particularly important to communicate to parents what competency education is and why it is essential to their child’s success. Changing the grading system is one of the hardest systemic changes, and success and ultimate sustainability will require deep, deep champions to be at the center of implementation. Without bridging this gap to the community, the school or district risks isolation, misunderstandings, and poorly supported programs.

2. Technology does not drive CBL, but it can enable personalization at scale. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to implementing competency education successfully, and each district or school must develop its own model with inherent flexibility to build the system around its needs. However, leaders are cautioned that software companies are branding themselves as “mastery-based” – but they are only online learning programs that allow flexible pacing; they do not allow multiple pathways toward success. For personalized learning to be truly realized through competency education, students must receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs along flexible learning continuums toward mastery. In this instance, technology is not the driver; but it can be a tool to enable personalization at scale.

3. Teachers need to know and become empowered by their changing roles. Teachers teach the way they were taught. For educators to fully grasp the underpinnings of competency education, they should participate in competency-based professional development programs. This could include microcredentialing or badging, where teachers personalize their own learning pathways toward mastery of specific educator-related competencies. This will help educators deconstruct what a classroom experience looks like, and they will be empowered in their new roles as facilitators, coaches, and content experts, moving away from the “sage on the stage” traditional lecturing models. In this capacity, there is a tremendous need for accurate, informed champion-like leadership.

4. The shift to competency education is not a movement, a practice, or a modality, but it is a sustainable, systemic change. The shift to competency education requires transformation in policy, professional development, funding, assessment, systems design, and grading, as well as shifts in the mindsets of parents, students, educators, administrators, and the wider community. This entire ecosystem of parts creates the backbone to successful competency education implementation. In this relationship-driven approach, all components must be supported in the transition to competency education.

All in all, innovators, researchers, practitioners, and leaders alike are confident that competency education creates a system of learning where each student has the supports necessary to demonstrate vast sets of competencies that will prepare them for college and career. The collective work being done in the field, built from shared knowledge and experiences, serves to transform learning around the idea that all people are capable of high-level learning. It must be dually noted that the road ahead will not be easy, as policy, bureaucracy, and a stubborn unwillingness for change tend to stifle the growth innovative learning models. Together, we can work to move through these barriers and reshape the future of education for all students, where there can be no gaps in learning, and all students achieve mastery.

For more information and ideas discussed at the summit, click here.

Natalie Abel is a Program Associate at iNACOL, where she specializes in communications and content. She also manages the operation of the CompetencyWorks brand, which provides information and knowledge regarding competency education in the K-12 educational system.