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Aurora Institute

The Shift In Action: Five Takeaways From Our Journey Towards A Competency-Based System

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Dr. Melissa Olson, Joey Lee

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation, Rethink Instruction, Learn Lessons from the Field

We want to be really clear. We haven’t implemented competency-based education into all learning experiences or classrooms, not yet anyway.

Spring Lake Park Schools, located right outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota, has been on this journey for over seven years with our 6,000+ learners. We’ve experienced ups and downs, moments of excellence, and false starts – all with a steadfast commitment to providing an equitable learning experience for our students through a competency-based approach. The structures in our school systems can make it hard to implement competency-based education. Many schools across the nation are driven by a time-bound approach dictated by a rigid curriculum, an archaic 100-point grading scale, and an assembly-line schedule.

Photos of four children smiling
Spring Lake Park Schools’ vision for innovative and personalized learning.

We have partnered with LiFT Learning in recent years, to support our shift to a competency-based system through professional services and technology solutions. We have different seats on the bus but are driving in the same direction.

Through our collective experiences, we’ve learned it’s not just “flip a switch” and whether you’re using it or not. It’s starting the work in pieces and then bringing the system along with it. It’s creating a vision with our community, developing a strategic plan to build capacity aligned with the vision, and taking one step at a time. We choose to celebrate successes and more challenging learning opportunities equally, always remaining committed to doing what is best for our learners. We’ve also chosen to make this journey in partnership and to share our learnings along the way. All boats rise with the tide.

In our journey to competency-based education (CBE), we want to share five takeaways with you.

1. The journey starts with shifting mindsets, and look no further than your staff.

To make the shift to CBE, you need to personalize the CBE journey for your staff, so they can do that in turn for their students. This may be the most important advice we would have for anyone trying to do this work.

We are working closely with our educators to personalize their professional learning journey in support of our vision. This takes the form of coaching, small-group professional learning communities, and school-wide professional development. It happens as both formal and informal learning through self- and peer-reflection, and it has really pushed some of our staff to let go of long-held truths about the role of the teacher. We are finding ways to lean into uncertainty and embrace ambiguity by channeling a beginner’s mindset fueled by curiosity. We are asking our teachers to do what we are asking our learners to do.

We found that CBE can have many entry points, and we encourage our teachers to find their personal entry points. We have amplified the importance of backward design so that teachers can ultimately turn the design over to students as they build agency. For some teachers, focusing on enhanced performance assessments has been the next best step. For others, it has been embedding career and life competencies into the unit design.

2. The shift takes time.

K-12 education is like an ocean liner, it takes a long time and many moving parts to change direction.

When we started this journey, we offered the opportunity to all staff in our district to participate in an initial project. We began with a group of teachers that wanted to be lead learners. About 40 teachers participated in our innovation cohort that researched CBE through the lens of our community. This group explored what we would want CBE to look like for Spring Lake Park and started the initial drafting of our competencies and rubric criteria.

Once our innovation cohorts started the work in their classrooms, we then asked them to scale it in small ways. We learned from those that were implementing and innovating and used those learnings to refine our framework and our understanding. We’re still in this process. This year, we have teachers here who are in the process of tagging state benchmarks to our competencies and accompanying rubrics. They are continuing to make refinements and developing learning progressions that lead to those competencies.

3. CBE follows the students, not the course.

In our most recent work, we’ve been trying to change the conversation away from grades and reporting that capture only one point in time to a more comprehensive understanding through portfolio assessment. We’ve also been looking at how to think differently about how we group our teachers or students and use time and space differently to move closer to a true CBE system. We are questioning and evolving our organizational policies, and continuing our development of curriculum mapping and standards to competency alignment, all while continuing to innovate at the classroom level to give learners a greater sense of agency in their learning process. We are working to design a system that follows the student.

One option we created for students at our high school is a co-created course where they work with a teacher side by side to co-create a learning experience. Co-created courses allow students to bring their passions into the course and guide how they will meet the transparent and mutually agreed upon learning outcomes. We are trying to create an environment where students and teachers identify the competency and create the learning experience driven by interests and passions.

Spring Lake Park High School: Co-created course discussion

Teachers are also continuing to create interdisciplinary project offerings for learners. For example, one high school course has a business and entrepreneurship project aligned to English language arts with a focus on communication, critical thinking, and collaboration skills. The students work on projects for a local business, company, or organization where they engage in research through problem identification and proposing solutions. Students often work in a small-group setting, which supports the development of collaborative and critical thinking skills that bring in our current life competencies. Students apply these skills to present recommendations to the clients, an authentic audience. Pulling multiple skills together is a much more engaging experience.

These skills develop over time and display themselves in many of the traditional, siloed classes. Historically, we’ve identified the students’ learning of academic standards using a letter or numeric representation. But in a competency-based model, learning is represented using a level of proficiency of the targeted competency and is backed by a portfolio of evidence from across learning experiences in and out of school.

4. Technology can help in the shift to a CBE approach.

While we believe nothing will replace the magic in the relationship between a teacher and a learner, we also believe technological innovations can augment and support that learning journey. If you have a learning management system (LMS) built for a specific learning modality or approach, it is likely that approach will continue to be the norm. Many traditional LMSs are built for siloed classes with teacher-led assignments and assessments graded on the 100-point scale. It will be more challenging to shift to a learner-led, competency-based approach if this is the technological ecosystem.

Most technology that exists in mainstream education is not aligned with a competency-based system. Trust us, we’ve looked for a long time and have spoken to many technology providers. Some provide solutions for part of the CBE system, others are able to solve for small, unique programs. Many traditional LMSs track grades in numerical and alpha representation and are bound to siloed classes. What does 75% / C really tell you about a learner’s demonstration of learning in a class? Aurora Institute CEO, Susan Patrick, represented this challenge well in a recent interview with, “We’ve got to have better ways of recording student progress in terms of what they’ve demonstrated mastery on and that e-portfolio background that’s attached to it.”

We decided to partner with LiFT Learning because we were looking for a system that would follow the students, rather than follow a teacher or a course. LiFT is not the only solution, but it is the solution that is most aligned with our vision. We really wanted something that could follow a student through their K-12 journey, and we needed something that would support portfolio assessment. We wanted to be able to see where the learner is in their learning of our identified skills, knowledge, and dispositions. Having a tool to help us do this also helps to identify where acceleration opportunities or gaps exist and develop personalized learning plans to support learners. LiFT’s platform is built for a CBE model and uses portfolio assessment to track learner progress, all while providing the structures we need through classes and co-created projects.

5. Find your first or next best step as an organization.

We’ve been doing this for a number of years now, and are flexible about what constitutes an entry point to competency-based education. It’s not black and white. It’s a multi-year process that involves humans. Our teachers have had questions along the journey and have not hesitated to voice their opinion. We celebrate this and consider it part of a healthy professional culture. More than anything, teachers have asked for a better understanding of what this looks like in the classroom. How does it work and how will it change their daily practice?

Not to belabor the point, but we’ve found it useful to create multiple entry points for teachers. We aim to personalize this experience for our teachers. Just the same way, we expect them to personalize for students. We have created the space for lead learners – teachers who want to jump in and really do something different to lead the way through the innovation cohort. We’ve encouraged strong backward design and increasing depth of knowledge and learning experiences. Additionally, we’ve integrated more performance assessments and are using career and life competencies with students as a point of feedback in their learning.

If your desired results are clear and you think about the varied experiences of students, families, and teachers along the way, everyone can find a next step towards the vision.

Looking for support? Here are a few resources we’ve found helpful on our journey.

  • Dan Joseph, Rose Colby, and Karin Hess offer a blueprint for CBE. This webinar series is a great place to start. We consider their book to be an excellent toolkit to start the shift.
  • The Transcend Design Community has countless resources and a Slack channel of like-minded educators. We hope to see you there!
  • The Aurora Institute’s annual Symposium has been a source of inspiration and implementation support. This recording of a session from the 2022 event shares more of the Spring Lake Park Schools story and our partnership with LiFT.

Innovation cohort: Diving into competency-based learning

Learn More


Dr. Melissa Olson has over 20 years in education, as a teacher, an instructional coach, and a coordinator for career and pathways programming. Melissa now works as Director of Curriculum & Instructional Practices for Spring Lake Park Schools. She is passionate about the power of career pathways programming and its connection to competency-based education.


Joey Lee is the Chief Learning Officer at LiFT Learning. As a New Hampshire educator at the forefront of the competency-based movement, Joey taught at Pinkerton Academy, serving as a teacher, curriculum coordinator, instructional design coach, and exchange program director. He was awarded New Hampshire’s Teacher of the Year in 2014 as NH implemented the innovative Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE).

As Chief Learning Officer at LiFT, Joey works with teachers and school leaders across the country to align instructional and assessment models with learner outcomes for schools and districts practicing competency-based education. An experienced facilitator and speaker, his breadth of experience supporting learner-led models position him well to provide compelling and relevant professional development services. He has written for Getting Smart, Education Reimagined, and LiFT Learning’s blog.


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