No Two Students Are the Same: The Potential of Competency-based Education

on Sep 17, 2012 in Blog by

I am a mother.  And this may shock you, I often resort to reading child-rearing books – usually about discipline.  Uncover your mouths.  It’s true.  The other day I came across a statement from Alan E. Kazdin, the Director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, in a discussion of helping children to develop appropriate behaviors.  Dr. Kazdin says, “Instead of thinking of it as a series of benchmarks that have to be met by such and such a calendar date, think of it as the process of your child achieving a level of mastery of behaviors you want”  (Kazdin 2008).  This certainly seems true as far as discipline and behavior for my own children and it immediately struck me that this idea of mastering behaviors at different times and in different ways can also apply to the way children learn in a classroom.  Any parent with multiple children will tell you that no two kids learn at the same pace or master the same skills in the same way, yet our schools work on a system based around the Carnegie unit – the idea that credit in a subject is gained by the amount of time spent in a classroom and with an instructor.  The notion of children mastering a subject in different ways, demonstrating that mastery, and then moving at an individual pace towards a diploma is not part of the design in most classrooms.

Competency-based education offers an alternative to the current system based on the Carnegie unit and many people believe it offers a solution to reforming education in America and ensuring that every child has access to a quality educational experience.   As many of you know, West Wind Education Policy has been working with the Iowa Department of Education around CBE for a while now.  West Wind continues to support the Iowa Forum on Competency-based Education, an online collaboration site we built for Iowans engaged in and interested in CBE that is currently being used by the Iowa Department of Education’s working Taskforce on Competency-based Instruction.  Through this work, I met people devoted to the idea that CBE could provide part of the answer to reforming our educational system and I read some very convincing work about the benefits of CBE, like Delivering on the Promise:  The Education Revolution by Richard Delorenzo, Wendy Battino, Rich Schreiber, and Barbara Gaddy and Off the Clock by Rose Colby and Fred Bramante.  These books offer an introduction to CBE and some background into how it has worked in districts in Alaska and New Hampshire.

In a competency-based education system, students advance upon mastery of a set of skills and must be able to demonstrate that mastery in multiple ways, ensuring that the knowledge they gain is useful and measurable.  A student moves forward when they have mastered skills and they become active participants in their educational experience, taking responsibility for their data, working with teachers to help set goals and decide how best to meet and demonstrate those goals.  Skills are not divided arbitrarily by subject, but are fluid so that students may demonstrate skills across a range of subjects simultaneously.  Teachers become facilitators of learning, assisting students to set goals and demonstrate mastery.  In this system school resources can be allocated more freely to meet needs.   In contrast, the traditional system measures student achievement in Carnegie units, seat time and contact hours with teachers.  Students move forward as the class moves forward, gaining some skills and potentially moving ahead without mastering all of them.  Teachers and administrators own student data and students often have little input into creating their learning experience and setting goals.  Lessons are divided along subject lines and skills used in more than one subject are often not recognized in both.  The focus is on the time students spend in a classroom, not the skills they master!  (For a more thorough comparison of CBE with the traditional system, see the table at the end of this blog).

Much of this seems intuitive to me.  I have a set of twins who often move along at the same pace, learning new things like counting to 10 or making their bed.  However, just as often they learn new things in very different ways and at different times.  One of them has been potty-trained for about a year.  I am still working with the other one.  No matter how similar they are, they do not master all new skills at the same rate, and if I tried to base my parenting for both of them off a set of dates when they should have mastered a skill, I would consistently bore one of them while overwhelming the other.  The result would be fewer skills for both, but they would be at approximately the same level.  However, if I tailor my parenting to meet the level of each of them separately and let them advance to the next skill only when they have mastered the first, I see growth in both of them.  I realize that teaching a child at home in a one-to-one (or one-to-two) situation without the pressure of a curriculum and a standardized test to monitor progress is very different, but I also think that it provides some insight into how children learn and how competency-based educational reform could impact our system.

With its focus on each individual student’s mastery of skills, CBE could be part of an educational reform agenda that promotes student academic growth and attempts to make school success possible for all students.  The key is that in order for this type of reform to succeed the changes would have to be system-wide.  It could not just be a change in how students are assessed, but in how they learn.  The changes would impact teachers work, building management, community members’ and businesses’ interactions with schools, parental involvement, and almost every other aspect of education.  This is not a small change, but a system-wide reform that would not happen overnight and would involve the dedication of teachers, administrators, district and state policy leaders, parents, community members, businesses, higher education, and our children.  Yet, I am convinced that the idea of students advancing upon real mastery of skills has the potential to change the way we think about education and to promote the growth of a new system of education where students grow academically and become critical and creative thinkers, ready to enter tomorrow’s global economy.

If you want to learn more about CBE and West Wind’s work, I encourage you to visit and the CompetencyWorks blog, managed by iNACOL.

Kazdin, Alan E.  (2008).  The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child.  New York:  Mariner Books.

Table A-1. Comparison of a Traditional System and a Competency-based System

  Traditional System Competency-Based System
System Outcomes
  • Content-focused and time-based; learning is the variable. The system is effective for a portion of students.
  • System expects some students will excel, some will do average work, and some will fail.
  • System expects teachers will work in isolation toward classroom goals, and administrators will provide direction, protection and order to the adults in the system through building and fiscal management.
  • System is organized around covering content.
  • Student-focused and learning-based; time is the variable. The system is effective for all students.
  • System expects all students can achieve at high standards; failure is not an option.
  • System expects all educational stakeholders will work together toward achieving student, class, district, and state learning goals.
  • System is organized around robust learning environments, rigor and relevance, and formative assessment.
Standards and Curriculum
  • Standards are discipline-focused and disciplines are independent of one another.
  • Learning is geared toward coverage of content and is disconnected from standards for career, college, and citizenry.
  • Focus is on essential concepts and skills, including 21st-century skills, and universal constructs across disciplines; disciplines are integrated.
  • Learning is geared toward recognized standards and keyed to what students need for career, college, and citizenry.
  • Relies on summative assessment, including standardized testing.
  • Grades are based on various (and often highly subjective) points (e.g., attendance, class participation) rather than proficiencies; may reflect quantity over quality (such as extra credit work); may be used in part to punish, reward, or control student behavior.
  • Grades are sometimes locked in before a course ends, and are often inflated.
  • Students accumulate graded units of instruction to graduate, regardless of skill levels acquired or grades assigned, and a standard diploma is regarded as the end point of the high school experience. For students capable of doing more and advancing while still in high school, the senior year is often spent coasting to the finish line.
  • Requires a balanced assessment system that includes formative, interim (benchmark), and summative assessment.
  • Values the knowledge and experience that students bring to the classroom.
  • Criteria are clear, follow learning progressions, include peer feedback and require students to assemble a portfolio of evidence.
  • Work is based on agreements about evidence of proficiency in essential concepts and skills and ability to apply universal constructs across disciplines.
  • Rubrics help students plan and monitor their learning; adjustments are made continuously based on what students and educators collaboratively determine to be valuable.
  • Students with an interest in advanced certification and credits (AP, International Baccalaureate, college credits) are supported in going beyond minimum diploma requirements.
  • Infrequently collected and analyzed, if at all.
  • Used almost exclusively by the adults in the system.
  • Frequently collected and analyzed (currently and longitudinally) by teachers, professional learning communities, and curriculum and instruction administrators, to achieve student, classroom, district and state goals.
  • Students own their data to help them in planning their learning agenda.
Teachers and Teacher Leaders
  • Teachers are dispensers of knowledge and design learning environments and instruction to ensure “coverage” by discipline, subject, and course.
  • Teachers are prepared to be content experts and to work independently
  • Teachers lead class discussion, make assignments, motivate students, give tests and track points, and assign grades.
  • Teachers primarily assess lower-order skills (e.g., knowledge, understanding).
  • Teachers often engage in “drive-by” professional development not linked to goals.
  • Teachers are facilitators of learning and design learning environments and instruction to ensure students acquire essential concepts and skills and are able to integrate the universal constructs across disciplines.
  • Teachers are prepared to be content experts, as well as mentors, resources, partners in school management, partners with community resource providers, skilled assessment and data practitioners, members of teaching teams, and members of professional learning communities.
  • Teachers assess higher-order skills (e.g., application, analysis, evaluation, creation).
  • Teachers engage in ongoing professional development linked to individual, classroom, school, and district goals.
  • Administrators manage buildings and people; enforce policies; and handle discipline.
  • Administrators are prepared to manage and protect the system.
  • Administrators create conditions and provide organizational support and vision to keep the district/school focused on learning.
  • Administrators are prepared to be instructional leaders.
  • Administrators engage in ongoing professional development linked to building and system goals.
  • Students receive or absorb information passively, recite when asked, achieve on tests.
  • Students do not have a role in designing their own learning environments.
  • Students develop primarily independent skills.
  • Students do not always know at the beginning of a course what constitutes successful learning.
  • Students envision and help plan their education path, partner in their own progress through multiple sources of data, learn by application, analysis, evaluation, and creation as well as through direct teaching models.
  • Students help create their own robust learning environments.
  • Students develop both individual and group skills.
  • From the very beginning of a course or project, they know precisely what proficiencies demonstrate desired attainment of concepts and skills, and they work to achieve those proficiencies.

Source:  Adapted from Oregon Education Roundtable (2009, March, Proficiency-based instruction and assessment: A promising path to higher achievement in Oregon education), by West Wind Education Policy Inc. and the Iowa Department of Education.


There are no comments yet, add one below.

Leave a Comment