Show What

You Know

A Landscape Analysis of
Competency-Based Education


Report Commissioned by XQ

Foreword: Highlights and Reflections

For more than 125 years, most of the world has relied on artificial proxies for learning — courses taken, years completed. Students are placed into age-based cohorts when they enter school and move through grade levels as they get older, rather than progressing as they demonstrate mastery. This system relies on seat-time over mastery, and its rules are organized accordingly.

What’s clear today is that some of those rules are getting in the way of important efforts to improve American education, especially in high schools. Across the country, educators and their community partners are trying to respond to student learning outcomes that are woefully uneven by race and class and mediocre by international standards with in-school and out-of-school learning experiences all students need to thrive in our changing world.

As part of that work, teachers and leaders are exploring ways to tailor teaching and learning to the unique needs of individual students and to provide the necessary support to each student along the way. They are designing models in which students advance on the basis of demonstrated mastery of essential knowledge and skills, rather than simply relying on seat time. This shift from time-based milestones to learning-based milestones is often referred to as “competency-based education.”

But as these innovators work to put their ideas into place, they run straight into rules that divide student learning into individual courses, discrete subject matter, subject-specific teachers, and set numbers of instructional minutes. The most dedicated of these educators respond by creating elaborate, time-intensive workarounds to map their work to the old system. Many more give up in frustration.

As we watched XQ schools and others around the country struggle with the twin challenges of fashioning entirely new learning systems and adapting these to the requirements of the old system, it became ever clearer to us that action is necessary to ease the way on both fronts: creating new learning systems and modernizing system rules.

To help us chart a path forward, we asked the experts at Getting Smart to conduct a landscape analysis of the status of competency-based education in the U.S., including recommendations for action. When we received their report, we realized that its findings and recommendations are important not just for XQ, but for those who are actively exploring competency-based education already and the entire field. We have therefore decided to publish and share the results of this analysis — along with our own take-aways — in the same spirit of “open-sourcing” that guides all our work.

Our purpose in sharing this report is to spur much-needed dialogue about the shift to competency-based education and how that shift can be done in ways that advance equity, ensure teachers have the tools they need and open up new opportunities for truly effective high school learning. There are no prescriptions here. Instead, we hope the reader will find the evidence cited thought-provoking and engage in a serious conversation about the compelling questions the report raises.

What Did Getting Smart Learn?

Research for this paper — which included in-depth interviews with more than 50 educators, analyses of more than 40 related publications, and dozens of school visits and observations of today’s competency-based learning models in action — uncovered real enthusiasm for competency-based education.

The field has advanced significantly in the past few years. Around the country, motivated teachers and well-implemented competency-focused systems are helping students take responsibility for their own learning, experience deeper learning, and develop the habits of lifelong learners. And new resources and tools, including blockchain technology and machine learning, could make the path to quality easier for educators.

Despite recent progress, significant challenges continue to impede the widespread adoption of competency-based approaches and models. Barriers include a lack of common definitions, transition challenges to support new roles for teachers and students, a lack of sufficient tools and resources, technical challenges around the inability to combine feedback from different sources, and the need for more descriptive transcripts accepted by postsecondary institutions.

So how can we strengthen our collective ability to innovate and build capacity for competency-based education? Getting Smart recommends that people across the field concentrate their efforts on a set of core system components, including new competency-based networks and school models, new curriculum and assessment tools, a more coherent approach to developing exponential technology, innovation in overcoming technical barriers, and continued advocacy and case studies. Getting Smart also urges much greater alignment between K-12 and higher education.

Overall, Getting Smart’s findings to indicate that the shift to competency-based education is occurring rapidly, right now, and that there are significant opportunities to help make it happen faster, better, and more equitably. Importantly, they conclude that “real progress will depend on an ambitious and fundamental rethinking of what graduates need to know and be able to do, what evidence will be used to demonstrate and assess their learning, and, ultimately, how learning will be credentialed.” Readers will find these and other findings, recommendations, and observations throughout the report.

Reflections on the Getting Smart Landscape Analysis

At XQ, we believe strongly that we need high school models that require students to demonstrate true mastery of knowledge, skills, and competencies, rather than rush through a list of learning objectives without truly mastering core competencies or applying their learning in new, authentic contexts. We also believe that expanded goals and definitions of success for high school students are greatly needed. Students need schools where they can progress based on mastery and, crucially, where those who enter high school with substantial academic gaps and challenges have the opportunity to catch up and accelerate their learning to achieve high levels of mastery.

While state-led efforts to develop college- and career-ready standards and the Next Generation Science Standards represent a critically important first step, most states have not yet ensured equitable access to college-ready academic programs or gone beyond foundational academics to specify the cross-cutting skills or other capabilities students will need to thrive beyond graduation. That’s why we developed our own XQ Learner Goals, and why we encourage states to design graduate profiles that reflect a broader definition of what students should know and be able to do to succeed in college, career, and life.

We understand that the shift from time to competency will not be sufficient on its own to assure that American high school students emerge from high school ready for college and the workplaces of the future. After all, we can point to plenty of examples of so-called “competency-based” systems that are ineffective and inadequate. Yet we do believe that the shift to competency-based education is one of several necessary shifts, along with broadening our goals for student learning to include developing cross-cutting skills and capacities, creating learning environments where students have voice and choice in their educational journeys, and expanding learning to take place in the broader community beyond the classroom walls.

Yet even as we recognize the importance of the shift to competency-based education, we, along with Getting Smart, acknowledge some real reasons for caution, in particular the additional demands these changes will place on teachers and the challenges inherent in implementing change within our deeply inequitable system.

Building Capacity without Increasing Burdens on Teachers

First, as the Getting Smart report points out, the transition from the old system to a new, competency-based system places considerable burdens on teachers. Grading practices will need to change profoundly, as will the ways in which teachers pace and sequence student learning. High-quality competency-based education will require teachers to provide ongoing and much more detailed feedback, as well as customized support to help each student achieve full mastery of key knowledge and skills, not just the “good enough” command that often earns a passing grade in traditional systems. The challenge is particularly great for students who enter high school significantly behind and lacking a firm academic foundation.

While touching on many important areas, this landscape analysis, as is the nature of such a report, does not point to detailed solutions to every important challenge facing the field.  For example, we know that the burdens on teachers will not go away post-transition to competency-based education. At the high school level, where teachers typically see not 30 students a day but more than 150, providing detailed feedback and customized support is simply not manageable at scale without a fundamental redesign of our high schools and the tools and supports teachers need to manage their instructional loads.

If we do not wish to add to the flood of teachers leaving the profession, we will need to figure out how to make teachers’ work more manageable. Certainly, better tools will help. So will improved preparation, training, and compensation. But the job itself — not to mention the structure of the school around it — is also going to have to change. Like their counterparts in higher-performing countries, our teachers will need more non-instructional time to devote to student feedback and support. Already, some of our best “next generation” schools are figuring this out. We need to learn from them and fast.

Achieving Equity in an Inequitable Education System

Second, although the nation’s strongest advocates for equity are painfully aware of the shortcomings of our time- and course-based system, many also worry about giving up even the admittedly weak protections that such a system offers to disadvantaged students, especially when all the critical resources in education remain so inequitably distributed. We share these concerns. When competency-based education incorporates a focus on equity, it has the potential to close gaps in educational access and outcomes and to improve college and career preparation for low-income students. Without an explicit equity focus, however, competency-based education poses the risk of exacerbating existing gaps.

In our current system, where the deck is stacked against low-income students and students of color and they receive less of almost everything that matters, changing the rules of the game will not necessarily produce more equitable results. Even schools and districts deep into the shift to competency-based education have far more work to do to realize the full promise of competency-based systems. Low-income students and students of color in some of today’s competency-based models are doing worse on traditional measures than their counterparts in more traditional schools—a challenge that many innovators are aware of and are actively seeking solutions.

Certainly, the strategies Getting Smart recommends — including building in equity on the front end of these efforts, smartly implementing tools for educators, and expanding guidance systems to help students navigate effectively through a system with more choices — will help. So, too, will their call for weighted student funding systems that provide schools serving concentrations of low-income students with the extra dollars they need to provide additional support. What we need to get clearer about, however, are the foundational requirements and guard rails for moving forward. Knowing this, we feel compelled to ask:

What, really, will it take for schools to enable every young person to emerge from high school fully ready for the future?  And how, along the way, can students, families, and communities feel confident that high schools are meeting that expectation?

Until we can answer those questions, parents and their advocates will be right to be skeptical. And we should be skeptical about rushing ahead.

In Conclusion

Getting Smart’s bold and provocative report provides a foundation for asking questions that need to be asked and invites the kind of dialogue that is so sorely needed about the promise of competency-based education, how to advance equity, and the future of American high schools.

In addition, it poses a more fundamental question: Why has the old system proven so resistant to change? Getting Smart argues persuasively, and we agree, that change is difficult because the system is stuck. Stuck in conventional definitions, such as “ninth-grader,” that say little about where students really are in their learning and where they need to go. Stuck in routines that compartmentalize how and when teachers interact with students. Stuck with tools and resources designed for a more static system than today’s students and teachers need. Stuck with college admissions requirements and state accountability systems that reinforce old expectations and make change feel risky to teachers, parents, high schools, and students themselves.

On top of these classic innovation challenges, we add another: the challenge of equity.

In a democracy, a public education system must stretch conventional notions of innovation to embrace a higher vision of the common good. Together, we need to be asking questions like these: Can our high schools close gaps in access and achievement and accelerate learning so all students achieve their potential? Can we use the talents of teachers and the power of technology to open new opportunities to learn and grow for many more students? Can competency-based education help us achieve those goals better than our current system? Can it help us get un-stuck from a system that perpetuates inequity for far too many students?

We hope you find these questions as compelling as we do. We urge everyone to read, think about, share, and discuss this important landscape analysis from Getting Smart. And we look forward to continued exploration of the many critical issues it raises.


— Russlynn Ali, CEO & Co-founder, XQ

Show What

You Know:

A Landscape Analysis of
Competency-Based Education

By Getting Smart

For the past 125 years, learning at both the secondary and postsecondary levels has been governed by a system of courses and credits, bolstered by standardized tests, that have largely been delivered through whole-group instruction to cohorts of same-age students.

That system has allowed us to define what we mean by a “high school diploma” and a “college education,” and it has worked to signal the capabilities of students to colleges and employers. Designed for simplicity of delivery and student sorting, the system has proved both efficient and resilient. Today, despite efforts to replace or reform it, it remains the norm globally in secondary education.


With more relevant expressions of learning goals and more accurate demonstrations of growth, the world is shifting to competency by moving from: 

The leading advocate for competency-based education (CBE), the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), defines it as an advancement on demonstrated mastery with well-defined competencies that empower students. They stress that students should receive meaningful feedback as well as timely and differentiated support so that they develop and apply a broad set of skills and dispositions.


The shift to demonstrated competence is very likely, and well underway incorporate learning and alternative higher education, but it is complex enough that it’s likely to be a generation-long process in K-12 education. It is a multidimensional shift requiring new experiences; new staffing, supports, and structures; new teaching roles and capabilities; new assessments and reports; and new funding models and policies.


It even changes the basic architecture of school, requiring more flexible and multi-aged groups and learning spaces. It is complex on all levels — pedagogically, technically, and politically — and the change required to combat the gravitational pull of the traditional system, and to do so with a focus on equity, is not to be underestimated. The transition to competency is enabled by the shift to digital learning, but in some ways, this has also added more complexity.


There is an opportunity to make the shift to competency happen faster, better, and more equitably by:

Aligning with quality learning goals and outcomes — for example, XQ’s Learner Goals and outcome areas, whereby students are masters of all fundamental literacies, generous collaborators to tough problems, holders of foundational knowledge, original thinkers for an uncertain world, and learners for life.

The reasons to take a competency-based approach are many and are further outlined in the rationale section below. In short, the payoff includes ensuring quality preparation and readiness for all students, realizing the benefits of learning science, working toward gap-closing equity, fostering student agency, educating for broader aims, and aligning with the world of work.

Definitions of Competency-Based Education and Related Terms

The most widely used definition of competency-based education has been established by iNACOL, an international non-profit dedicated to driving the transformation of education systems and accelerating the advancement of breakthrough policies and practices to ensure high-quality learning for all1 — and CompetencyWorks, a project of iNACOL dedicated to providing information and knowledge about K-12 competency education.

At the core of this definition is a shift from time-based milestones to learning-based milestones as drivers in education.

Several other organizations focus on CBE and tend to speak about CBE in a manner consistent with above, and yet each with their own nuances or connections. The following terms are used synonymously with CBE:

Competency education: CompetencyWorks uses this as well as “competency-based education” (CBE).

Proficiency-based learning: Great Schools Partnership and across New England.

Mastery-based learning: popularized by Benjamin Bloom, now used in New York City.

While the above terms are largely synonymous, with the shift to personalized and digital learning, there are other terms in the educational dialogue that actually do have nuanced differences (see box below).

iNACOL Definition of Competency Education

Definitions of Related Terms

Personalized Learning:

Tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs, and interests — including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when, and where they learn — to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.2

Blended Learning:

Any time a student learns, at least in part, at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and, at least in part, through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace. The modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.3

Deeper Learning:

Popularized by the Hewlett Foundation, deeper learning experiences contribute to the development of skills and knowledge that students must possess to succeed in 21st-century jobs and civic life, including: 1) master core academic content, 2) think critically and solve complex problems, 3) work collaboratively, 4) communicate effectively, 5) learn how to learn, and 6) develop academic mindsets.4

Student-Centered Learning:

Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the leading champion of student-centered learning, identifies four key tenets of student-centered approaches that are essential to students’ full engagement in achieving deeper learning outcomes: learning is personalized; learning is competency-based; learning takes place anytime, anywhere; students exert ownership over their learning.


The Rationale for Competency-Based Education

The adoption of CBE across American education would be challenging and expensive. What’s the evidence for making the transition, and what benefits can we expect?

The shift to competency-based learning will not be an easy one, but the evidence for making the transition is clear.

Quality preparation

Much of the corporate training world has shifted from participation to demonstrated skills in order to improve job readiness. Blended and personalized approaches are more popular with employees and more cost-effective for employers.

As useful as his video tutorials have been, Sal Khan’s big contribution to education may prove to be his advocacy for CBE. His now-famous “house built on a bad foundation” analogy makes the case that passing students on who has only mastered 70 or 80 percent of the material leaves fatal gaps in understanding that are never likely to be closed, and leave learners unable to make creative know-how of the skill set. He argues that students should master skills at a high level before moving on to enable skill transference.6

Learning science

Advances in neuroscience are providing a new understanding of how people learn. As Harvard’s Todd Rose notes, there is no average; each of us has a “jagged profile.”7 He and others argue that we should address the individual needs of learners. “The research on how students learn examines how important it is to meet a student within their zone of proximal development, allow for productive struggle and design progressions effectively—where learning hinges on successful prior learning,” according to iNACOL.8 James Pellegrino’s thinking, as reflected in the National Research Council’s report “Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century,” is critical. As the title suggests, it is no longer enough to simply develop skills and obtain knowledge; to achieve full potential, students will need to apply to learn and transfer it to new contexts, which no doubt requires deeper learning and tapping into problem-solving, critical thinking, and self-management skills.


The XQ Knowledge Module on Teaching & Learning also points to the importance of transferability and deeper learning for long-term impact: “It is critical that students go from knowing (acquiring knowledge that can easily be forgotten) to understanding (internalizing knowledge so it can be applied in new situations).”9 The ability to transfer knowledge to the real world is vitally important today. As Pellegrino notes, “For educational interventions focused on developing transferable competencies to move beyond isolated promising examples and flourish more widely in K-12 schooling, larger systemic issues and policies involving curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development will need to be addressed.”10


In order to advance gap-closing equity, CBE needs to be designed and resourced so that structures, schedules, and supports can be aimed at struggling learners that need differential assistance and more time to accelerate their learning. With a focus on equity, CompetencyWorks suggests that effective CBE implementation ensures equally high outcomes for all learners, interrupts inequitable practices, and cultivates the unique gifts of every person. A subsequent section in this report is dedicated to this important topic.


More than a decade of research suggests that mindset matters significantly in post-secondary and career success.11 12 The extent to which a student owns their individual learning experiences — often referred to as agency — is key. Agency is represented in new outcome frameworks such as XQ Learner Goals and MyWays from Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC). Each of the experts interviewed spoke about learner agency as an important outcome of competency education.

Michelle Weise, in her former role as Senior Research Fellow on Higher Education of the Christensen Institute, said that the intent of CBE is “to be clear about a student’s precise skillsets, dispositions, and capabilities in a way that seat-time-based learning is ill-equipped to reveal. A list of college credits and grades on a transcript or even a diploma more generally are poor proxies of what a student can do. Competencies, in contrast, offer a legible and meaningful reflection of what a student both knows and can do with that knowledge.”13

The ultimate goal.

Developing XQ Learners — students who are deeply engaged in their own learning and fully prepared for all that the future has to offer. This blueprint is not exhaustive — it is meant to illustrate how deep, rigorous, and interconnected XQ learning needs to be.


Broader aims

While schools early in the transition to competency education focused primarily on core academic learning, there is now an increased emphasis at all levels (states, districts, and networks) on adding broader learning goals to reflect more than a decade of research into college, career, and life success. As a field, we are still trying to figure out how to effectively practice CBE for core outcome areas while also adding more outcome categories. We believe it is not only possible, but imperative, to integrate academic rigor and broader aims, and also recognize the inherent tension and complexity such an approach creates. Like the XQ Learner Goals and NGLC MyWays, several organizations have published or updated graduate profiles.

As an indicator of momentum in this area, in March of 2017, a network of 200 school districts launched the Profile of a Graduate campaign promoting the adoption of learning goals including creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration. The website, now part of Battelle for Kids, includes a gallery of adopted profiles and an implementation guide. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) offers the most commonly referenced outcome framework for social and emotional learning (SEL), which is now widely recognized as key for career and life success (see a comparison of CASEL to other leading outcome frameworks).

Work is shifting to a focus on demonstrated competence

Both professional and higher education environments are also making the shift. Driven by changing job requirements and the need to accelerate skill development and verify job readiness, employers and education institutions are moving from requiring participation to requiring demonstration. The following are examples of developments in professional certification, post-secondary learning, and K-12 education.

Many professions require demonstrated mastery for licensure. Professions regulated by states — including medicine, law, engineering, and accounting — have competency-based entrance requirements that involve not only one or more multiple choice tests, but authentic assessments of mastery. Medical doctors, for example, are also required to complete a residency with an attending physician. Pilot licensing is administered by the Federal Aviation Administration. After receiving a private pilot’s license, a commercial pilot must earn an Airline Transport Pilot Licence, which requires a degree, a test, flight hours, and simulation hours.

Additional examples of professional learning shifting to competency include the explosion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that have become popular for post-baccalaureate education, particularly in computer science. MOOC providers including edX, Udacity, and Coursera offer multi-course certifications (nanodegrees and specializations, respectively) in technical subjects.

Hundreds of colleges and universities representing most states offer some form of CBE.14 They most frequently target underprepared and non-degreed adults. For example, Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America offers applied and flexible learning for working adults. In this accessible, affordable, achievable approach, students complete 30 projects and develop and demonstrate 120 competencies to earn an AA degree; another 20 projects earn them a BA.

Minerva, a highly selective global university, measures critical and creative thinking, communication, and social interaction — including 97 discrete habits of success and foundational concepts — through papers, projects, and participation. They also give the Collegiate Learning Assessment+ (CLA+) exam before and after the first year to demonstrate growth in critical thinking and communication (see the appendix for additional examples).

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