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Competency-Based Education: A National Landscape

• Karla Phillips

Students Sitting in Classroom


In competency-based education models, students advance to higher levels of learning when they demonstrate mastery of concepts and skills regardless of time, place or pace. And interest in this innovative education model is increasing across the nation.

Earlier this month, ExcelinEd and EducationCounsel released a new report, Policy, Pilots and the Path to Competency-Based Education: A National Landscape, which offers a survey of current state laws and policies on competency-based education in K-12 systems.

Nationwide, educators are seeking innovative ways to meet students where they are and to ensure they are truly college and career ready. Simultaneously, we see a growing tension between the new transformational, flexible, student-centered systems and traditional, standardized policies. The research in this paper clearly demonstrates that the process of redesigning education—from assessment, accountability, credit, diploma to graduation policies—will be unique to each state’s context, be incremental and take time.

This finding reinforced our belief that pilot programs can provide a mechanism to do just that—and more. States can use innovation and pilot programs to harness existing flexibility while they transition to the broader systemic changes necessary for the implementation and sustainability of competency-based education. The experiences of pilot participants will craft the unique policy pathway for each state.

Transition to Competency-Based Education

Education leaders and policymakers commonly believe the first step toward competency-based education is a sweeping overhaul of state law or policy, but this review suggests that does not always have to be the case. Many states, if not most, already have policies in place, (e.g. waivers) that can help schools begin the transition to competency-based education. However, the primary challenge for states is to create awareness of existing opportunities and support the innovative local education agencies (LEAs) and schools ready to seize them. Again, pilot programs provide this opportunity.

During this scan of the states, we also discovered more innovation programs and competency-based pilot programs than initially expected. This suggests that many states may be on the pathway to competency-based systems should their respective pilots deliver the anticipated results. It also raises the possibility that states with pilots could share lessons learned and help build national understanding of what it takes to develop effective competency-based education systems.

At the same time, pilots will need time, attention and perseverance from a variety of stakeholders to truly succeed. The policy areas described in this paper—flexibility from time-based systems; transition to competency-based diplomas; acceptance of competency-based diplomas and credits by higher education; polices to encourage anytime, anywhere learning; and supportive assessment and accountability systems—are not intended to be a menu of options but a comprehensive set of changes that will allow competency-based education to take root and flourish. By authorizing pilot programs, states can provide the mechanism to explore these areas before ushering in statewide change.

The fact that so few schools maximize the current flexibility provided by states brings into question whether existing policies are truly understood or represent perceived barriers or disincentives to innovate. Perceived or not, they can be stumbling blocks for innovative leaders, and states can and should confront these challenges proactively through pilot programs and broader communications efforts.

The good news is that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides an important opening for states to rethink their systems of teaching and learning. Competency-based education can serve as a foundation and unifying concept as assessment, accountability and school support systems are reconsidered and redesigned to meet the demands of today’s students and economy.

We hope to contribute to this effort by continuing our examination and promotion of leading state and local policies related to competency-based education. Further research opportunities for competency-based education advocates should:

  • Investigate why LEAs and schools have not yet taken advantage of existing flexibility to pursue competency-based education.
  • Explore why LEAs have decided or been invited to participate in a state pilot program.
  • Determine what conditions and policies innovation and pilot programs should incorporate to create a greater chance of success.

Innovation for innovation’s sake is not a worthy goal. But the changes accompanying competency-based education programs and policies offer an exciting possibility that should be the end-goal for every state, school and classroom: creating an education system that maximizes every student’s potential for learning and prepares all students for success.

CBE Paper Cover Screenshot

View Report

For more on competency-based education, visit ExcelinEd’s Policy Library or check out these EdFly blog posts:

About the author

Karla Phillips

Karla is Policy Director for Next Generation Learning at ExcelinEd. Previously, she served as Special Assistant to the Deputy Superintendent of Policy and Programs at the Arizona Department of Education. Karla also served as the Education Policy Advisor for Governor Brewer and as the Vice-Chair of Arizona’s Developmental Disabilities Planning Council. Her experience includes serving as Director of State Government Relations for Arizona State University (ASU) and as a senior policy advisor for Arizona’s House of Representatives. Karla received her B.A. from Indiana University and an M.P.A from Arizona State University.