5 Strategies for Competency-Based Education

What would it look like for student learning to drive high school? That’s the idea behind…

By Hana Beach

What would it look like for student learning to drive high school? That’s the idea behind competency-based education (CBE), a way of teaching that prioritizes mastery of material over seat-time. CBE isn’t a new idea, but when the pandemic hit and traditional school structures faltered, CBE became relevant in a whole new way. Now, students are back in their seats—but that doesn’t mean we have to go back to the old way of doing things.

Competency-based education is a broad term, so what are the key takeaways for teachers this year as you build a “new normal” in your classroom? 

Why It Matters: CBE is a learning system that prioritizes mastery of material over time spent in class. Students progress by showing mastery of core competencies, including knowledge, skills, and dispositions that empower students. At its core, CBE is personal, flexible, and rooted in equity—exactly what many students needed during the disruption of the pandemic. This year, continue to emphasize competency by:

  • Defining core competencies students will learn in your classroom
  • Differentiating within lessons to meet different learners’ needs
  • Involving students in setting personal goals for the year

Extra Credit: The Role of the Teacher in a Personalized, Competency-Based Classroom

As the pandemic ushers in new debates about the role of test scores, now is the perfect time to rethink how assessments measure student learning. 

Why It Matters: As part of their CBE programs, many schools have replaced traditional grades with mastery-based transcripts. Instead of letter grades, these transcripts measure proficiency in competencies to show what students have actually learned. Adapt mastery-based principles to work with your grading system by:

  • Using student work and projects for major assessments
  • Giving opportunities to revise and resubmit work
  • Including students in self-evaluation

Extra Credit: Allowing Test Retakes—Without Getting Gamed

Knowing how to meet the wide range of needs in your classroom can be a huge challenge. Competency-based education offers a holistic, asset-based approach.

Why It Matters: CBE begins from a place of recognizing individual student strengths and areas for growth, and builds from there at a pace that works for the student. For students who are underserved or marginalized by traditional models of schooling, this approach can be transformative. Consider how your curriculum: 

  • Values students’ existing knowledge
  • Incorporates student choice in curriculum decisions
  • Centers equity and anti-racism

Extra Credit: How Our District Reimagined Special Education (Opinion)

With K-12 federal COVID-19 relief funds, schools are in a unique position to invest in high school transformation with personalized student needs at the center. 

Why It Matters: Competency-based education works best at a whole-school level. It’s a big transition—but the impact on students is worth it. We took a look at XQ schools that have successfully implemented CBE practices and highlighted key areas for investment, including:

  • Professional training in CBE for educators
  • Curriculum redesigns centering key student competencies
  • A learning management system that supports mastery

Extra Credit: The Key Phases of Competency-based Education: A New Resource From Springpoint 

Competency-based education meets real-world problem solving at Purdue Polytechnic High School, where students demonstrate mastery of material through projects in their community. 

Why It Matters: There’s no more satisfying way to demonstrate learning than to solve a real-world problem. At competency-based schools like Purdue Polytechnic, students develop passion projects around issues in their community that matter to them, mastering academic and “real-world” skills at the same time. Consider how you can involve your community in classroom projects, and maximize impact by:

  • Defining outcomes
  • Tracking and managing student progress
  • Finding creative, invested partners
  • Staying on top of logistics

Extra Credit: Learning more outside of the classroom than in