Opportunities & Recommendations
for the Field

CBE will require a new architecture for learning, encompassing both key operating features and supportive strategies to help schools effect change. What are the key levers for making the shift, and how can we activate them?

Throughout this paper, within each section, we have presented impact opportunities related to specific areas and themes. Yet we also acknowledge that, compared with traditional systems, CBE will require a different overall architecture for learning — an architecture that demands both comprehensive design and systemic change efforts to transition existing schools to a new way of operating.

We, therefore, urge the field as a whole to pursue the development of five core system components, which together will strengthen our collective ability to innovate and build capacity for CBE:


New competency-based networks and school models

Although requiring time and resources, continued support for new school development or high school redesign (directly or through partners) provides a high return and relatively low-risk investment strategy. New rounds of funding could more explicitly focus on the competency-based opportunity.


New curriculum and assessment tools designed for competency-based learning models

Although requiring time and resources, continued support for new school development or high school redesign (directly or through partners) provides a high return and relatively low-risk investment strategy. New rounds of funding could more explicitly focus on the competency-based opportunity.


A coherent approach to exponential technology

Direct investment in promising startups is a possible but high-risk approach. Public-private partnerships with leading school networks in promising states are the best bet. They could be launched as a design competition for a regional learner profile pilot (potentially using blockchain technology) with the potential for follow-on investment.


New approaches to technical barriers and design challenges

Multi-dimensional problems like interoperability could be addressed with low-cost design competitions and by sponsoring specific projects at leading standards groups, such as IMS Global Learning Consortium (IMS) and Ed-Fi Alliance (EdFi).


Continued advocacy and case studies

Supporting channels like CompetencyWorks could provide the field with valuable case studies and process models. CompetencyWorks might also add a new commitment option that makes it easier for schools to participate, thus broadening the base of visible participants and supporters and helping aggregate demand for platform providers (so they begin investing in competency-related features).
We therefore urge the field as a whole to pursue work in these five overarching areas, while continuing to move forward with more specific impact opportunities.

Opportunities & Recommendations
for the Field

CBE will require a new architecture for learning, encompassing both key operating features and supportive strategies to help schools effect change. What are the key levers for making the shift, and how can we activate them?

When we take a step back and consider the following three enduring questions about learning in any context, especially a competency-based approach, they force us to rethink many aspects of learning.


What do we want students to know and be able to do?

The first imperative is getting the targets right — specific enough to measure but broad enough to encourage deeper learning and special enough to ensure employable skills.


How will we know what students know and are able to do?

The second challenge is agreeing upon forms of evidence to be captured and considered and the progress model that will become the core architecture of the school.


What experiences and supports will students need to get there?

We will need to agree upon experiences and support likely to produce the outcomes we seek. It’s here where available tools, professional learning models, and existing practices leave room for great opportunities to change the learning landscape.52


This report has outlined a mostly U.S. K-12 centric perspective on the transition to competency-based education, the barriers to progress, and a series of investment opportunities.


The transition to competency will happen — it is very likely that the core architecture of school will shift from time-keeping to learning — but there is an opportunity to make it happen faster, better, and more equitably.


In short, it begs the question: as we consider time, path, and place, do we also need to rethink the high school credential itself?


The reality is that American youth don’t get what they need from high school. There are lots of reasons — some economic, some cultural, some educational. Two root problems are how we’ve defined the finish (current course-based graduation requirements) and how we communicate success (through a transcript based on seat time requirements).


For 125 years, we’ve managed and recorded the high school experience as a series of courses and grades. Today’s high school transcript is a record of time and activity, but not a very good measure of knowledge, skills, and dispositions. It doesn’t capture experiences or work products that provide evidence of growth and accomplishment.


Student course taking is guided primarily by the number and type of credits required by the state (and occasionally also the district) for a high school diploma. These requirements, which define the minimum expectations for compulsory education, are effectively a social contract and equity promise.


Standards-based reforms of the last quarter-century have worked to better connect the high school with entrance requirements for post-secondary pathways that lead to living-wage jobs with long-term opportunities. These standards have been critical in raising sights and more clearly defining what students should know and be able to do by the end of high school, but they are not always accompanied by aligned course requirements. States that haven’t yet done so should be sure that their course requirements for a diploma are fully aligned with their new standards.


However, because standards are often accompanied by definitions of “grade level” proficiency, they can create barriers to students moving at their own pace. Course requirements, too, are often time- rather than learning-based, and often isolate knowledge in rigid disciplines, rather than helping students to think in interdisciplinary ways as typically required in real-world settings. So even as states move to assure their systems are fully aligned and that there are clear benchmarks for assuring equity, they’ll need to find innovative ways to address these tensions. Over time, a better high school credentialing system will require innovations in everything from the way we express our expectations for young people to the way that learning is organized, measured, and recorded.


What’s the best way to express desired student learning goals? What are the best outcome frameworks? To what extent should desired outcomes vary by career pathway or post-secondary plans?


What forms of evidence most accurately reflect student learning and growth? What evidence should communities accept? Micro-credentials and badges seem like a promising approach, but how can we ensure consistent quality?


How could schools help students summarize their capabilities, accomplishments, and aspirations in ways that benefit them and receivers (especially colleges and employers)?


How could schools be encouraged to work together around common expectations, assessments, and supports?


If diploma systems become more modular and flexible, how can we ensure equitable access to career pathways? How can we improve guidance to support successful experiences and contributions?


We also acknowledge 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. Our research has strengthened our conviction that an effective, equitable CBE system must be built upon a new infrastructure of goals and requirements — thus calling upon us to rethink the high school credential itself.


As we ask these important questions, we hope that you will join in on the conversation on both social media and at all manner of conferences and networking events. It is only through collective action, understanding, and learning that we will be able to affect the change that our students both need and deserve.



For Additional Information

The research conducted throughout the development of this landscape paper included the identification of a variety of schools, organizations, tools, and other resources impacting the field of competency-based education.


This information has been published in a series of blogs on Getting Smart, which can be accessed at the links below. Please join the conversation by leaving a comment at the bottom of any of these blog posts with any helpful resources we may have missed.


40 Competency-Based Education Publications and Resources: This blog identifies integral competency-based education publications, research, and other resources.


35 Competency-Based Education Advocacy & Research Organizations: This blog post identified and highlighted the work of leading organizations in the effort to shift education to a competency-based paradigm.


Philanthropic Organizations Making an Impact in Competency-Based Education: This blog looks at philanthropy organizations moving the needle forward through their initiatives and funding.


Corporate and Higher Education Examples of Competency-Based Programs: Competency-based learning is not only for K-12. This list looks at postsecondary programs that can provide useful insights.


Model Schools, Districts, Networks and States for Competency-Based Education: An initial list of positive examples. It is not intended to be a comprehensive list, but rather a sampling of places identified as exemplars by interviewees and/or in other research.


Helpful Tools for Providing Effective Competency-Based Education: The tools listed here represent a sampling of some of the best CBE-capable educational technology in the areas of learning platforms/learning management systems, curriculum resources, assessment/reporting, and more.


18 Examples of State Policies that Support Competency-Based Programs: This list provides state policy examples in the areas of flexibility from time-based systems, competency-based diplomas, acceptance of competency-based diplomas, and credits by higher education, flexible learning, state assessments, and innovation pilots.

One other item worth noting about the field as a whole regarding competency-based education is that we are still in developmental stages. While there are numerous publications and an extensive collection of research to make the case for the underlying principles of competency-based education (see Great School Partnerships’ research base), there are fewer studies done specifically regarding achievement at CBE schools. A Rand report summarizes this well by saying, “Recent studies have described the experiences of educators undertaking competency-based reforms or have highlighted promising models, but these studies have not systematically examined the effects of these models on student outcomes.”53


We would like to thank the people and organizations who have been interviewed directly and/or are referenced in the publication. We strive to work with schools and organizations that are committed to diversity and that work to promote an equitable approach focused on all students.

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

Quality preparation

XQ is a growing and passionate network of educators, students, families, and civic-minded citizens reimagining high school education in the United States. Our mission is to fuel America’s collective creativity to transform high school so every student succeeds — no matter their race, gender, or zip code. We want to see that change underway in every high school and in every community — all 14,000+ school districts.


XQ launched in September 2015 as an open call to the nation to rethink and redesign the American high school. More than 10,000 people from all 50 states answered our call with unique ideas for innovative, student-centered high schools that prepare young people for tomorrow’s world. XQ has pledged more than $130 million to create Super Schools that make those visions a reality.


Super Schools are just one element of XQ’s work. We offer free, open-source tools and materials so that every community can rethink their high schools. And because we believe that great high schools for all are a hallmark of a great nation, we are carrying that message into homes, schools, and neighborhoods across the country to tell stories that show how innovative and creative high schools can and should be.


XQ is led by Co-Founder and CEO Russlynn Ali, former Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights under President Barack Obama, and Co-Founder and Board Chair Laurene Powell Jobs, president of Emerson Collective. Board members include Geoffrey Canada, Marc Eckō, Michael Klein, and Yo-Yo Ma.



Learning science

Getting Smart® is a learning design firm passionate about accelerating and amplifying innovations in learning. With experience as educators, school administrators, business executives, and nonprofit leaders, our team strives to increase access to — and the impact of — high-quality learning experiences through our extensive expertise in teaching and learning, education leadership, organization management, communication, marketing, and sales. This unique combination of experience, passion, knowledge, and relationships drives our work to improve the education landscape for both students and adults.


Through our offerings of advisory, advocacy, and design solutions, we have helped our network of impact-oriented partners learn, grow and innovate. Our media channel, GettingSmart.com, has an engaged community of learners, leaders, and contributors that cover important events, trends, products, and publications across K-12, early learning, post-secondary education, and lifelong learning. Taken together, these efforts keep our thumb on the pulse of the most pressing and promising developments in education. We welcome you to join us in our effort to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for all, at GettingSmart.com.


For Additional Information

We would like to thank the countless school and district leaders, non-profit leaders and researchers, policy experts, and others who generously shared their time and talent to make this publication possible. We are grateful for your openness and willingness to share your stories, your insights, and your examples to help us reach our goal of raising awareness of the potential of competency-based education, and we look forward to continuing our exploration of competency-based education.

All images in this publication were created by XQ Institute or Getting Smart staff unless otherwise noted.

Contributors to the report include Tom Vander Ark, Mary Ryerse, Caroline Vander Ark, Janice Walton, and Erik Day; Russlynn Ali, Michele Cahill, Anne Mackinnon, Kati Haycock, Carmel Martin, Ann Cattalini Sinclair, Nina Gajdosikova, and Michael Evans; and other members of the XQ and Getting Smart teams.

Copyright © XQ Institute 2018

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

For requests, please email us at [email protected].

For information or resources, visit www.xqsuperschool.org.

Published by XQ Institute Fall 2018

Citation: Getting Smart, Show What You Know: A Landscape Analysis of Competency-Based Education, XQ Institute, 2018.

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