Often called proficiency-based, outcome-based, standards-based, or performance-based education, the core idea is to eliminate time and place as barriers to learning, and this idea is a focus in many state reforms, Patrick said.

Competency-based learning, she noted, is aligned around five key elements:

  1. Performance: Students advance upon mastery.
  2. Goals: Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  3. Demonstrate: Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  4. Feedback: Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  5. Problem solving/higher order thinking: Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

“Competency-based learning is fundamental to being able to personalize learning at scale, and it challenges almost all of our assumptions about the present system,” Patrick said. “When you rethink a system transformation toward competency-based learning, you are literally going to be challenging everything in the system.”

What might such a system look like?

  • Every student has a personalized learning map
  • Data systems support teachers and students, clearly indicating their level of progress on each academic standard and efficiency standard in order to monitor student progress
  • Rubrics help teachers understand what proficiency looks like
  • Students know their learning targets and collaborate with each other
  • Adults are in shifting roles

“Competency-based learning matters because it flips time into being a resource, and not a constraint,” Patrick added. “It gives us a way to help better serve our students.”

Some states are implementing competency-based frameworks in an effort to personalize student learning and support students’ needs, as noted in A K-12 Federal Policy Framework for Competency Education: Building Capacity for Systems Change, an issue brief from iNACOL and CompetencyWorks, which Patrick referenced during the briefing.

New Hampshire was the first state to focus on competency-based education, and since 2005 its education policies have continued to focus on student-centered learning.

State policymakers in Rhode Island have made personalized learning a priority and are focusing on targeted instruction and comprehensive assessments.

And in Detroit, a nonprofit school turnaround organization used a competency-based system when it launched a blended model at A.L. Holmes, a low-performing K-8 public school. Student math and reading proficiency skyrocketed and the model was expanded to other schools.