2040 Vision, Looking Back at the Emergence of Competency Based Learning

2040 Vision, Looking Back at the Emergence of Competency Based Learning

March 3, 2017 Southeast Education Network Magazine, the Future of Education

The bureaucrats were the worst. They dug in their heels and clung to the control model that included long lists of content standards to be “covered” and standardized tests designed to give percentile scores that sort students, schools, and teachers into winners and losers.

Looking back from the year 2040, it’s easy to see how educators were shackled to a system that was never designed to help all kids succeed in school or become lifelong learners. Almost everyone knew it was not meeting the needs of most students in the information age, but still most schools clung to the familiar patterns.

The transition to competency based learning wasn’t always pretty. Organizations are predisposed to resist change. Teachers had grown up with and were trained to deliver lessons based on the age-based, time-limited, one-size-fits-all instructional model.

For far too many years, incredible pressure was placed on administrators and teachers to use the pre-industrial one-size-fits-all curriculum model with all kids. And for all those years, even after everyone recognized the importance of being a lifelong learner, the standardized grade-level model of instruction drove many poor, minority, and vulnerable students into believing that they were poor learners. These students were not able to “keep up” with the expectations and the pace of academic instruction, and so they disengaged, stopped trying, and accepted the idea that they were not good at reading or math or learning.

The curriculum-driven system did what it was designed to do. It “covered” the standard content expectations for children of the same age. The pacing guides and assessment schedules kept teachers moving forward to cover all the expected material, so children had only a short window in which to grasp the content or develop the skills. Tests were given at the end of each unit, and grades sorted the students into winners and losers.  For so many students, this system stripped away the growth mindset, damaged their self-efficacy as learners, and robbed them of their love of learning. All this went on in the name of rigor, Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act.

While the system clung to its old ways, by the early 21st century the transition to competency was unescapable. Learning systems for careers in the trades had long been competency-based, with electricians, plumbers, HVAC techs having clear learning goals and step-by-step learning systems in which you had to prove competency at every level. Pilot training and medical training demanded competency-based system learning because no one wants the C-minus surgeon or pilot, and the emergence of the world of digital technology created the need for competent tech support in many new areas. Designers used competency-based systems in the structure of digital games.  Coaches, music teachers, and driver education instructors recognized the need to identify what a student could do, then design instruction at their level and keep teaching a skill for as long as it takes to fully develop.

Even while most schools doubled down on pacing guides and assessment systems, digital reading and math learning systems were emerging. Blended learning began to creep into the schools. The Khan Academy with its free personalized and competency-based math learning systems served as a glaring contrast to one-size-fits-all school model. The increase in homeschooling quietly challenged the standard model.

The founding of Western Governors University in 1997 served to accelerate the already existing movement toward competency-based learning at the university level. As students and parents began to question the efficacy and cost of a college degree, many universities and colleges began to move toward a competency model both as a way to save costs for their students and improve the likelihood that students would learn skills that matter for economic and personal success.

In 2005, New Hampshire began its work to establishing a competency-based system for high school graduation. They eliminated the reliance on credit and course based graduation standards, and required districts to create their own framework of competencies and begin measuring high school credits in terms of mastery of those competencies by the start of the 2008–09 school years. Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island and many other states were similarly moving toward competency-based learning.

The use of competency frameworks to build essential learning skills in the early childhood years was invigorated by the successes of the Pre-K to Grade 3 Essential Skill Inventories. By identifying a sequence of core skills in all domains of early childhood, asking teachers to become highly skilled at using systematic formative assessment, giving students all the time and help needed to build core skills, and moving students forward as soon as they were fully ready for higher levels of challenge, teachers were able to keep kids in the zone of optimal development. These inventories gave educators a system that served as an alternative to racing through coverage in the typical one-size-fits-all model, and allowed even poor or vulnerable students to see themselves as effective learners.

Looking back, you could say it took way too long. From the early 1970s until the early 2020s U.S. schools maintained about the same levels of 17-year-old reading and math outcomes on the NAEP. Despite decades of rhetoric and waves of “school reform,” the one-size-fits-all curriculum-driven model never achieved any significantly improved national learning outcomes.

As personalized, competency-based systems emerged, finally we found a way to improve outcomes for all, give vulnerable kids the time and support to learn foundation skills, and build pathways that allowed all students to progress based on motivation and effort toward higher level skills that matter. The transition to competency-based learning wasn’t always pretty, but looking back now from the year 2040 some things have become especially clear.

Schools Can Be Places Where Students Are Inspired to Learn

While some predicted competency-based learning would help produce a world of isolated learners using online programs, it did not work that way. Schools became the hub for community learning. In some cases students learned basic content online and then came to school to discuss, problem-solve and work on projects which helped students see the practical application of knowledge, or extended learning to see how it connected to other important aspects of their lives.

Some classes lasted throughout the school year, while others were designed to learn a specific set of skills, then disband and choose other skill sets to learn. Mini-classes were available, as were classes that offered deeper levels of study. Some classes included same aged peers, while others were for mixed-age students. Because each student’s competency profile was available to their parents and teachers, it was easy to know precisely what skills a student had already developed and how to offer instruction at just the right level of challenge to ensure interest and engagement.

As competency-based learning systems emerged, the culture of our schools evolved.  Students were not competing for grades on a bell curve, or hoping that someone would score worse than you. Instead, collaboration blossomed in ways we never predicted.  Same-aged groups worked to help every member achieve competency. Mixed-age groups broke down barriers as it became clear that everyone wins when everyone learns. Schools evolved from a place for teaching and testing, to a place for collaboration and learning at your own pace.

Better Outcomes Are Possible

As schools stopped pushing kids into the frustration zone, it became quickly clear how much more kids learn when they spend time-on-task, working toward clear goals at their own instructional level. This is such a basic truth about learning. When teachers actually applied the science of instructional match to classroom design by effectively using small groups, center and project based learning, rates of learning climbed.

Many vulnerable kids still came into school behind in the development of basic learning skills, and it took time to build those skills. But once the basic learning skills were in place, even poor or minority kids saw that effort brought the reward of learning. It might take someone a bit longer to reach a goal, but with continued effort they could reach any learning goal. Finally, being born underprivileged was no longer a life sentence to diminished learning skills and low-skill low-wage jobs.

Instead of sorting students into winners and losers, schools became places where every support needed for learning was available. There were no failing students. Instead there were students who might need more time but were fully capable of developing skills or knowledge. Rates of proficiency soared, because these systems were designed to give kids what they need, at their level, for as long as needed to achieve proficiency.

Teachers As Professionals

When we stopped giving teachers rigid pacing guides and scripted learning materials, a few got out of the profession. Most teachers, however, thrived in the competency environment. Educators were expected to know their students and give them crucial instruction at their level of readiness, which is what every professional educator wants to be allowed to do. Using a competency framework, teachers could easily track progress. Parents came to see teachers as really knowing their children and deeply caring about the success of each child.

One-size-fits-all instruction quickly disappeared. The teacher’s job was no longer to sort winners and losers, but instead to help all children realize their potential, pursue their special interests and fall in love with learning for life.

Parents As Partners

As competency-based learning systems matured, they offered many more opportunities for parents to help their own children. Moving from one clear learning goal to another creates a different dynamic for learners, teachers and parents. Clear learning goals gave parents far more opportunities to help, or seek materials or learning experiences that matched the needs of their students. Parent networks emerged, with extended family, friends and neighbors coming together to share expertise and support one another’s children in person and online.

A new type of village developed, with uncles and grandmothers and friends adding value to the learning experience of the children they love. It was not about grades; it was about learning. Creating a future for every child became a shared mission.

Self-Efficacy and the Growth Mindset

Learning is for life. As schools became places where students were empowered to learn in their own way and at their own optimal pace, students began to own it. No longer was a grade the goal. Skills, learning, application, focus, persistence and effort were the currency for success.

Every child understood that her or his learning success led to higher-level skills and opportunities in life. Because the school’s responsibility was to offer personalized instruction toward crucial outcomes rather than sort kids into winners and losers, effort brought success. Every student could progress toward higher learning goals, one step at a time, at whatever pace worked for him or her. Through effort, growth was always available, in school and in life.

Schools became places students wanted to be, and wanted to learn. Instead of being confined to long hours of sitting through tedious standardized instruction that rarely matched their needs or interests, schools became respectful and collaborative places where instruction was personalized for your success. The innate childhood curiosity and love of learning was no longer suffocated by standardized lessons and testing.  Education was no longer a misery to be tolerated; it became a privilege to be embraced.   Schools soon became multi-generational centers for learning.

In response to the transition to competency-based learning, schools changed from cover/test/sort institutions to places where students took ownership of their learning, and progressed at their own best rate toward competencies that matter. Instead of competing for grades, they helped each other develop as learners. Rates of learning increased in correlation to the time spent in the optimal instructional zone. Some students started off behind their age-peers, but no longer was that a life sentence.  Learning was no longer a race; it was a journey that every student could travel.

Instead of being rote automatons delivering one-size-fits-all scripted instruction, teachers were expected to know their students and use formative assessment to rigorously adapt instruction to the needs of each student. As one-size-fits-all instruction disappeared, professionalism replaced depersonalization, and joy returned to the profession. Top-tier candidates again took an interest in becoming teachers.

Parent support increased as schools identified clear learning goals and children achieved greater success.  Communities rallied to support their school and a culture of lifelong learning. An atmosphere of learning and collaboration became the norm in schools, some before others, during the years that American schools made the transition to competency-based learning.


Bob Sornson is an award-winning author and consultant with a focus on competency-based learning, early learning success and parent education. He works internationally with school districts, universities and community organizations. His many books include Brainless Sameness (Rowman), Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency Based Learning to Transform Our Schools (Routledge), Fanatically Formative (Corwin Press), and Essential Math Skills, Pre-K to Grade 3 (Shell Education). Email: Bob@earlylearningfoundation.com.