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Aurora Institute

Is our K-12 education system fit for purpose? How can we transform education in today’s rapidly changing context to ensure all learners are prepared to lead in the future? The following are a few of the tough questions the Aurora Institute frequently tackles.

Competency-Based Learning

What is competency-based education?

The field of K-12 competency-based education is expanding, and knowledge is growing. From 2017 to 2019, CompetencyWorks engaged in a multi-stage, participatory process to update the 2011 working definition.

The revised 2019 definition of competency-based education is:

  1. Students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning.
  2. Assessment is a meaningful, positive, and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant, and actionable evidence.
  3. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  4. Students progress based on evidence of mastery, not seat time.
  5. Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing.
  6. Strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of schools and education systems.
  7. Rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable.

A competency-based school or district should implement all seven elements of the definition. Strong implementation also requires policies, pedagogy, structures, and culture that support every student in developing essential knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

What is personalized learning?

Personalized learning tailors learning to each student’s strengths, needs, and interests. Students have “voice and choice” in determining what, how, when and where the learning occurs to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.

What is the connection between personalized learning and competency-based education?

Competency-based education systems provide structures that increase the effectiveness of personalized learning, such as validation of proficiency based on student work, careful monitoring of pace and progress, and an intentional focus on equity to ensure all students reach the same high standards. These competency-based structures form the foundation of equity for all students, with an expectation for demonstrating mastery through evidence. They also ensure that personalization does not reinforce traditional, inequitable structures such as tracking.

Why does K-12 education need to change?

The traditional one-size-fits-all approach to education began more than 100 years ago and hasn’t changed much since. There are 10 critical areas that we focus on as indicative of the need for redesign. Traditional K-12 approaches have systemic structural flaws:

  1. Focus on a narrow set of academic outcomes and fails to recognize that student success is dependent on a full range of foundational skills, including social-emotional skills, and the application of skills.
  2. Are time-based. Schools batch students by age and move them through the same content and courses at the same pace. Students advance to the next grade level after a year of schooling regardless of what they actually learned.
  3. Use grading practices that send misleading signals about what students know by reflecting a mix of factors, such as behavior, assignment completion and passing tests.
  4. Rely on a bureaucratic, hierarchical system that perpetuates traditional roles, cultural norms, and inequitable dynamics.
  5. Are built on a fixed mindset, the notion that people’s abilities are carved in stone.
  6. Depend on extrinsic motivation.
  7. Emphasize covering the curriculum but fail to reflect the learning sciences about how children learn, grow, and develop.
  8. Are organized to efficiently deliver curriculum and assess students’ proficiency at low levels, such as memorization and comprehension of content knowledge, rather than applied learning and mastery.
  9. Have high variability in how teachers determine proficiency.
  10. Rank and sort students, creating winners and losers and perpetuating inequality in our society.

What are the distinguishing characteristics of competency-based education?

Competency-based education systems are designed for mastery. Success is the only option. Failure may be part of a student’s learning curve, but it is not an outcome. Here are key distinguishing characteristics of competency-based systems compared to traditional one-size-fits-all systems. In competency-based education systems:

  1. Student success outcomes are designed around preparation for college, career, and lifelong learning.
  2. Districts and schools make a commitment to be responsible for all students mastering learning expectations.
  3. Districts and schools nurture empowering, inclusive cultures of learning.
  4. Students receive timely and differentiated instruction and support.
  5. Research-informed pedagogical principles emphasize meeting students where they are and building intrinsic motivation.
  6. Assessments are embedded in the personalized learning cycle and aligned to outcomes including the transfer of knowledge and skills.
  7. Mechanisms are in place to ensure consistency in expectations of what it means to master knowledge and skills.
  8. Schools and districts value transparency with clear and explicit expectations of what is to be learned, the level of performance for mastery and how students are progressing.
  9. Strategies for communicating progress support the learning process and student success.
  10. Learners advance based on attainment of learning expectations (mastery) through personalized learning pathways.

What will students experience in a competency-based school?

Below are examples of experiences that every student should have in a well-developed personalized, competency-based system.

  1. I will be fully supported in developing academic knowledge and skills, the ability to apply what I have learned to solve real-world problems, and the capacities I need to become an independent and lifelong learner.
  2. I feel safe and am willing to put forward my best effort to take on challenging knowledge and skills because I have a deep sense of belonging, feel that my culture, the culture of my community and my voice is valued, and see on a daily basis that everyone in the school is committed to my learning.
  3. I will have opportunities and support to learn the skills that allow me to take responsibility for my learning and exercise independence.
  4. I have access to and full comprehension of learning targets and expectations of what proficiency means.
  5. I have opportunities to learn anytime, anyplace, with flexibility to take more time when I need it to fully master or go deeper, and to pursue ways of learning and demonstrating my learning in ways that are relevant to my interests and future.
  6. I am able to own my education by learning about things that matter to me in ways that are effective for me with the support that allows me to be successful.
  7. I will receive timely feedback, instruction, and support based on where I am on the learner continuum and my social emotional development to make necessary progress on my personalized pathway to graduation.
  8. My learning will be measured by progress on learning targets rather than level of participation, effort or time in the classroom.
  9. Grades or scoring provide feedback to help me know what I need to do to improve my learning process and reach my learning goals.
  10. I can advance to the next level or go deeper into topics that interest me as soon as I submit evidence of learning that demonstrates my proficiency.


How can policymakers support a vision of transformation to personalized, competency-based education to help all students succeed?

Policymakers can tackle several critical issues to create a long-range vision for the transformation of education systems. They can:

  • Redefine student success to ensure students are prepared for college, career, and civic life with the knowledge, skills, and mindsets for healthy and prosperous futures.
  • Create innovation zones to support districts and schools designing new learning models and to help remove barriers for modernizing education delivery.
  • Build balanced systems of assessments to certify student mastery of knowledge and skills and provide timely feedback on where students are in their learning.
  • Redesign accountability systems for continuous improvement to achieve equity and excellence, empowering stakeholders with multiple, balanced measures and reciprocity processes.
  • Modernize the educator workforce. Create professional learning communities and incentivize competency-based teacher and leader preparation models to support building educator capacity for personalized, competency-based education systems. Build knowledge and skills through micro-credentialing.
  • Increase educator workforce diversity to better reflect student populations.
  • Launch competency-based education pilots.
  • Offer seat time waivers and credit flexibility to open space for multiple pathways for learning anytime, everywhere. Redefine credits based on competencies rather than seat time.
  • Create meaningful credentials by earning credits based on mastery of knowledge and skills. Offer mastery-based diplomas and transcripts.
  • Align systems from pre-K, K-12 education, higher education, career/technical education into employment for coherent, competency-based pathways for learning and earning degrees and credentials. Create a future-focused task force to plan a statewide vision for a lifelong, continuous system of learning to ensure all youth have pathways to prosperity.

How do most states begin to create policy space for student-centered learning?

States can provide space for innovation in policy that allows educators and communities to begin to explore, plan and design innovative teaching and learning models to prepare all students for the future. This is a critical first step. Many states begin with creating task forces to study the needs of stakeholders to and begin implementing personalized, competency-based education. States also establish innovation zones, where districts are given support and freedom to innovation, with permission to apply for waivers from restrictive state policies or rules to allow schools to design more innovative learning models. Credit flexibility from seat-time policies that restrict where learning happens offers flexibility for extended learning opportunities — anywhere, anytime — is a critical area of policy to allow student-centered learning models to grow and demonstrate their power.

States create competency-based education pilot programs with groups of districts forming a community of practice across different regions in the state, and over time, allowing the practices to incubate new models in local and regional clusters. States are offering students multiple pathways to graduation. A few states are considering what will be required for the future of education and the future of work by planning advanced policy initiatives that include aligning K-12, Higher Education, career and technical education and workforce, offering proficiency-based diplomas, and considering what a continuous learning systems over a lifetime would look like with meaningful credentials. Advanced states are working to provide statewide support to build local capacity for student-centered learning and modernize professional learning for educator leaders.

How do most states fund transformation to student-centered learning?

Funding innovation is crucial for capacity-building activities such as professional development, technical assistance, professional learning communities, and information dissemination. States and districts use a variety of approaches to resource their work. Few states rely on one single funding strategy; most leverage a mix of government and third-party sources to enable the work. For example, some repurpose state funds to cover specific initiatives; some seek foundation grants. Special appropriations and partnerships with businesses and universities have also been among favored approaches. In addition, a few states have passed legislation that comes with renewable appropriations.

When considering a new approach to funding, states should look to more advanced states to study their methods and outcomes, engage school district communities to identify where funding is needed, identify existing sources of funds that could be tapped for new purposes, and identify funding targets to sustain the work.

How can state policymakers get help and receive assistance from our team of experts at the Aurora Institute?

We are here to offer expertise on a diverse range of issues related to education innovations, transforming learning and systems change. Please contact our Center for Policy Advocacy by sending an email to [email protected].