Steps to Help Schools Transform to Competency-Based Learning

It’s no longer a given that if a child spends twelve years in school, he or she will learn enough to succeed in higher education or a career. To address this issue, some educators are taking bold measures to help students. Traditionally, classes move forward, covering the curriculum according to schedule. Students are taught the same materials at the same pace. If a student fails to learn a skill, he or she accepts that result and moves on to the next topic with the rest of the class.

Competency-based learning, on the other hand, insists on mastery of subjects and provides students the time to learn; the students are not marched past failure. There are challenges to this methodology as well, but it is slowly gaining acceptance and has been around long enough to develop some best practices. School districts that have seen success with this model carefully laid the groundwork for this fundamental change away from a traditional model of education. They also designed the infrastructure that supports it and learned some big lessons during implementation.

Competency-based learning, often called mastery-learning, at its core involves five elements:

  1. Students advance when they master the content and skills, not because they squeaked by with a C or a D grade.
  2. Transparency about where students stand empowers them and enables educators to better tailor instruction to their individual needs.
  3. Assessment is a continual part of the learning cycle, not a final judgment at a time when a student has no hope of changing the outcome.
  4. Educators offer timely support, often daily, on any part of the required material.
  5. Students must be able to demonstrate that they can transfer their knowledge to new contexts, applying skills to challenges they’ve never seen before. This often means developing life-long habits of learning.

“It’s not just about pacing,” said Chris Sturgis, author of the report “Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders” by CompetencyWorks. “It’s much more about flexibility of resources, time and effort to make sure students are successful.” Competency education is often conflated with flexible pacing because in both models students in the same classroom are working on different aspects of the curriculum. However, competency education requires a much bigger revisioning of the school system beyond the traditional paradigm.


To undertake this kind of big project a district needs to take a systems approach to teaching and learning, gathering input from all the stakeholders, listening carefully, incorporating those ideas in real ways into the plan and developing a strong shared vision and district culture.


Many districts trying to implement a competency education don’t spend the necessary time ramping up to this kind of sweeping reform, instead jumping right into designing the infrastructure as though it is a technical problem. But without the buy-in of the community, school board, staff and students, the reform effort is likely to flop. The infrastructure must be built on a strong foundation.


There’s no “right way” to transition into such a drastically different way of thinking about school because the unique factors of each district and community will play a big role. Asking the community what they want their graduates to look like is a good way to start. Preparing students for what the new system will be like and preparing them to take on more autonomy and agency is also crucial.

Pittsfield School District in New Hampshire had a slightly easier journey to competency than Alaska or Maine because the state passed a law requiring high schools to implement competency education by 2008. That law has been ignored or implemented with varying degrees of effectiveness in different parts of the state, but it did help provide some support as schools began to define indicators of competencies.

Read the entire article by Katrina Schwartz on MindShift at

Read the full report, “Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders” for many more details and examples of how to implement a competency-based approach.

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