Ask an educator about what it’s like teaching a room full of students, and you’ll likely hear a similar refrain: No two kids learn the same way or grasp concepts at the exact same time.As a result, educators often say they resort to “teaching to the middle.”

More schools are starting to question whether traditional age-based classrooms are the best way to go, and to change the dynamic of teaching to the middle, they’re experimenting with competency-based learning, a system that moves kids along at different paces once they’ve shown they can grasp a key concept of a unit.

Kim Carter, executive director of QED Foundation, is a big supporter of competency-based learning.

“The choice is, do we want an education system that’s obsolete or do we want a system that is valued and creates value,” Carter said. The foundation offers training, coaching and consulting that focuses on student agency, as well as communities of collaboration both inside and outside school. Eventually, she says, that pace should be negotiated, with the student gradually taking over more responsibility for her learning.

Competency-based education is gaining momentum across the country. Already New Hampshire and Maine schools have transitioned to the model. Schools in Oregon, Iowa, Minnesota, and many other states are following suit. The Common Core State Standards are also pointing in the direction of requiring competency rather than just a passing grade. Though Carter says the language of the Common Core favors performance-based assessments — students will have to show what they can do — she thinks it’s unfortunate that a test will measure the learning, because at best, a test approximates meaningful assessment, but does not demonstrate real-world application of knowledge.

“The standardized tests that allow us to compare across states tell us nothing about the individual,” Carter said. “They were not designed to tell us anything about the individual; they are designed to measure the effectiveness of programs. That’s a very different thing.”

If learning becomes more personalized, tests should too. “The whole idea of competency is the ability to apply, document, and defend your learning,” Carter said. She proposes that schools use a common rubric to assess “uncommon learning.” In other words, she proposes teachers need to be strict in their expectations and required criteria, but more flexible in terms of how a student gets there. Students don’t all have to read the same book or create the same project, but they do have to demonstrate that they understand and can use the core competencies.

If a student gets 50 percent in a class in a traditional school, she fails and has to repeat the course or grade level until she scores higher, even if the score means that she understood half the material. Forcing her to repeat everything is inefficient and puts the student at a disadvantage for the rest of her academic career. In competency-based classrooms, students relearn and demonstrate competencies in only the areas that challenge them before moving forward.

“‘Batch and queue’” is horribly inefficient and destroys kids’ concept of self,” Carter said. “It’s like manufacturing, where you put everything through the same system and compare it to standards at the end. If it doesn’t match, put it through again.”


Shifting to a truly competency-based system means big changes for schools and would produce a ripple effect. “If you are truly going to go competency based and not just have a veneer of change, it will require retooling our systems,” said Carter.

Teacher training tailored to a competency-based education system is still one of the biggest hurdles. Many training courses have been the same for decades and don’t reflect some of the changing trends in education, Carter said. Successfully implementing a competency-based system is no easy feat — it means valuing what a child can demonstrate he knows, rather than assuming a correctly answered test question signifies he can apply that knowledge.

“Competency-based education is a huge shift, not just in terms of actual practices, or what we do in the classroom, or how we document what happens in the classroom, but a change in what we believe,” Carter said. And teachers need to act their way into believing, they can’t just be told to do it. She points to nursing or other higher education programs that ensure graduates have the basic skills and competencies before they can progress as good models to follow.

[RELATED READING: Five Big Changes to the Future of Teacher Education]

The other big barrier is teacher evaluations. Right now teachers are assessed by how well students do on a test. But understanding how well a student really knows the material should take more than that, just as teacher assessments should be based on more data points, Carter said. Teachers and students are trapped in the same system, one that is at odds with competency-based models.

“Our whole evaluation system is pretty young in the sense that we have only a few rudimentary means of assessing what students know,” Carter said.

Ultimately, teachers need to be trained and supported in the same way as students. And for both groups the standards have to mean something. Carter fears that if the education system continues as it has been, it will not only be obsolete, it will provide diplomas that have little validity.

To Break the Mold, Is Competency Learning the Key? 17 April,2013Katrina Schwartz

  • As soon as I read competency-based learning, I immediately thought of Common Core Standards. As an advocate of Common Core Standards and a representative of an author whose books are currently being used as Common Core resources, I am on board with competency-based learning with one issue that you point out (a point that many Common Core opponents use for their arguments). How will educators be trained to assess each student’s competence? Do you have a follow up on this issue because it is something I am interested in. I want to know what others think about what we/community/government/etc can do to make this issue into a strength of Common Core and competency-based standards!

  • I’m currently a student at WGU which was one of the pioneers in competency-based learning. (Schools of Nursing have implemented it for many years.) I can’t champion the approach more fervently. I have several “traditional” degrees to compare. So, here’s my take on the traditional “gold standard” educational delivery approach: rote learning; regurgitation of facts (only to forget everything within 6 months. Lots of data to support that position); rampant grade inflation (look no further than for some data); Carnegie-Unit ‘seat-time’; objective-based testing; and drill-and-kill lectures. Competency is completely different. A refreshing approach to educational delivery. No grades. Don’t need them. They are poor indicator of knowledge and comprehension. Rather, students have to demonstrate knowledge and prove they understand the concepts. “Standardized”? Perhaps. We have a fair degree of autonomy in completing assignments (e.g. “Tasks”). For example, students can employ everything from multimedia to writing to demonstrate competency in many courses. Also, there is no traditional syllabus. Rather, the courses are predicated on the competency rubric. Students must demonstrate mastery on each and every required competency. Whereas traditional education is bound to the time-based model (learning is the variable), competency is based on learning as the constant. Time then become the variable.

  • Look no further than Montessori. Make Montessori available to all.

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  • Dave

    Competency-based instruction has been around for decades – had courses in it in grad school back in the mid-70s. One of the biggest road blocks is actual classroom implementation. Very difficult for one teacher to give enough time to each student with 25-30 students in the class.


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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