What is Competency-Based Education?

We’re interested in how schools grow and change and how teachers learn throughout their careers. When school systems get excited about approaches to school change like competency-based education, or CBE, we think it’s a great opportunity to engage with educators and to learn more about their beliefs about teaching and learning and what they think the future of schools should look like.

Across the US and around the world, schools are experimenting with CBE. For example, our lab is located in the New England region of the United States where several state legislatures have passed competency-based education legislation and policy, with mixed results. Some districts have found these policies to be catalysts for rethinking teaching and learning in powerful, student-centered ways, and others have found the demands for change too difficult or found that adopting competency-based strategies doesn’t address the underlying problems that CBE has the potential to address.

What exactly is competency-based education?

There is no single agreed-upon definition, but we see some common elements in programs that call themselves competency based. Most school curricula today are organized around how much time students spend in different courses. The amount of time that students spend, say, in math class is fixed– 52 minutes for factoring polynomials, 180 days for algebra, four years of high school math. But the learning is variable. Some students master the material, and many don’t.

Competency-based education tries to shift the emphasis from how time is allotted to whether or not students can demonstrate well-defined competencies. Here, the competencies are fixed, a commitment that every student will master the fundamentals, but the time invested and the learning pathways vary from student to student. To master competencies, students need to know what the competencies are. Teachers and schools make competencies explicit and help students track their progress towards those competencies.

Students use the competencies as a map to the content and skills that they need to learn in school. Assessment of these competencies is an ongoing process rather than a single summative event. In schools today if a student fails a test, the class often keeps moving forward through new material. In competency-based environments, students are often given more than one opportunity to demonstrate competency and extra support as needed.

If a student fails a test or a section of a test, it means that they need more support there so those shortcomings don’t keep compounding as the concepts get more complicated. In the very best implementations of CBE, these elements together mean that students and teachers know what they need to teach and learn.

Students have some choice and agency in how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning. When students struggle, teachers and students work together to address the problem rather than continuing along and hoping that students will figure it out later. One challenge in understanding competency-based education is a proliferation of terms and definitions.

We use the term competency-based education, but people referring to proficiency-based learning or mastery-based learning are often talking about similar things. Some learning competencies look very similar to learning objectives that you might see for an individual subject or class– for example, list the different parts of a plant cell and describe functions of major organelles– while other things called competencies are much larger in scope and less tied to particular subject matter– for example, present ideas concisely and clearly using visual material to illustrate key points.

Educators and others are still trying to figure out the right size and scope for competencies and competency-based education. For some schools, competency-based education is a way of refining traditional aspects of teaching and learning. My own kids go to an elementary school that uses a competency-based report card which lists competencies in math and reading and art and social behavior.

However, most of the instruction is pretty traditional, meaning lots of small group work and instruction directed at the whole class, but quite good instruction. For other schools, competency-based education is a way for the schools to dramatically rethink time in and out of the classroom, schedules, assessments, projects, instructions, and to rethink the skills graduates need to succeed. In many of the best implementations, a key focus is on issues of equity.

How do we build systems where, when kids are struggling and not mastering foundational skills, we as educators can identify what supports they need to be ready for the challenges of the future? We know that any institutional change is hard. It requires strategic thinking and a commitment of resources, time, and energy, and it involves frustration, resistance, and challenges. We wanted to make these issues part of the conversation and to give you the tools to consider not only the nature of CBE in general, but what it can mean for your own thinking about teaching, learning, and school change.

We want to help you understand what problems competency-based education is trying to solve, how different schools are implementing competency-based education in response to those problems, and the opportunities these different implementations present. We want to empower you to think critically about all of this experimentation and to identify what approaches might be worth trying in your own contexts.

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