Competency Based Learning: The Time is Now

Competency Based Learning: The Time is Now

Please check out my interview in Education News, and share with your colleagues.

An Interview with Bob Sornson: Competency Based Learning

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Bob, aren’t our schools already focused on helping students achieve competency?

Our schools are not well-designed to help large numbers of students achieve competency in the skills and information needed to be competitive in the world today.  For more than a century and a half, we’ve been using the same basic instructional model that Horace Mann brought back from Prussia in the 1840s.  This design called for a standard curriculum to be delivered in each grade, covering reading, math, American culture and ethics.  Standard first grade curriculum was followed by standard second grade curriculum, etc.  It was a perfectly good one-size-fits-all model for its day because no one expected most students to stay in school for long, and high-quality academic learning skills were not needed for most jobs.


  1. Don’t we cover a lot more in modern schools than they did in the 19th century?

Absolutely.  We’ve put the one-size-fits-all instructional model on steroids.  In the 1980s we developed long lists of content to be covered in every grade and called these content standards.  Over time, we shifted content expectations so that children were expected to learn the content at younger ages.  In recent years state and federal government have mandated annual standardized testing, and districts have added rigid pacing guides, and even more standardized assessment structures, all in an effort to make sure that all the expected content gets “covered”.


  1. What do you mean by coverage-driven instruction?

Everything about our present systems emphasizes coverage.  Lesson plans describe what we will cover for the group, often including references to the content standards.  Common Core State Standards are the newest iteration of a long list of stuff to cover.  In our modern version of this coverage-driven model, kids are exposed to content, given a test, given a grade, and then the teacher moves on.  There is no time to go back and help kids develop deep understanding or appreciation of what they are learning.  The pacing guide demands that teachers move forward.   We’ve taught kids to seek passing grades without deep understanding of the content or a love of learning.


  1. Are you a supporter of Common Core State Standards?

The CCSS are just another list of things to cover.  The thing I like best about the CCSS is that there are fewer “standards” to be covered than in most of the old state lists of grade level content expectations.  But CCSS is still just a long list of things to cover, some of them vaguely written, many of them repeated from grade to grade.  They are standards for coverage, not standards for learning.  Coverage does not equate with learning, and I care a lot more about what kids learn than what has been “covered” in the classroom.



  1. How is competency-based learning different?

It starts with the identification of essential learning outcomes, knowledge and skills that a student needs to learn to absolute proficiency to be able to move forward to higher levels of learning.  Then it is necessary to assess student learning skills and readiness so that instruction can be designed at the student’s readiness level.  Teachers monitor progress and continually adjust instruction for essential outcomes, giving students all the time and support needed to achieve competency for any skill that is essential.  And competency is not just an 80% score on a test, but rather the ability to deeply understand content and use skills easily, in multiple contexts, and over time.


  1. That sounds impossible for teachers to do with all the content standards we’ve given them to cover in our schools.

You’re right.  We barely have time to “cover” the standards, much less help each child learn them to competency.  The power of competency based learning is that it starts with identifying what is essential for kids to learn, and then put these essential skills into a sequence that lead to higher levels of skill.  This sequence of skills must be concise and clear.  Students get all the time needed to learn these skills fully, and then progress to higher levels.  This is a fundamentally different model for instruction than the coverage-driven system we have today.


  1. What is an example of competency based learning in action?

Competency based learning is all around us.  A parent teaching his child to throw and catch starts with a big soft ball, and gives the child all the time and practice needed before progressing to smaller balls and more difficult throws.  No one gives you a pacing guide and tells you that you must throw hard balls at six year olds.


We have always used competency based learning systems for skills which are deemed crucial.  An electrician goes through knowledge training, practical training, and apprenticeship.   No one wants a C minus electrician wiring their home!  Electricians have to show competency in every essential skill before earning a Master Electrician certificate.


The same is true for airline pilots, medical personnel, and even technology certificates.  These fields require that candidates learn every essential skill to competency, even if it takes longer for some students than others.


In New Hampshire, high school graduation is no longer based on accumulating credit hours.  Instead, every district has developed a competency structure which defines the skills and knowledge needed to earn credit in any of the required areas.  Many states are exploring competency models.  Higher education is moving quickly toward competency, with new systems that give students an opportunity to more efficiently develop the skills they need for the workplace.  Blended learning and on-line learning are being used to support the development of important skills.  Early childhood programs are using the Essential Skill Inventories to keep track of the development of competency in all the domains of early childhood during the preschool to grade 3 years.


  1. Which of your books describe the importance of competency based learning?

The Essential Math Skills includes a system of 29 skills that are the foundation of number sense, and should be learned in preschool to grade 3.  For these 29 skills the competency standard is complete accuracy, demonstrated over time, using at least three different learning contexts. Many math skills, activities, and projects can be used to enrich the math learning experience, but this set of skills must be learned well or children will lack the deep understanding of numbers needed to do high level math.


Fanatically Formative: Successful Learning during the Crucial K-3 Years also describes the use of a competency structure during the early childhood years.  And by the end of this year my new book will be available, called Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency Based Learning to Transform Our Schools. 


  1. What is the biggest challenge to competency based learning?

The status quo with all its vested interests, including the largest publishing and assessment companies, education leaders who lack the vision to see how a fundamentally different system is needed, and everyone else who accepts a system that produces only a small percentage of successful learners.  Many educators are so busy keeping up with pacing guides and content expectations, and so overwhelmed by federal and state reports and mandates, that it’s hard for them to imagine something other than the system we have always known.


We keep tweaking a system that is failing to serve most children.  The history of school reform in our country should make this perfectly clear.  Since the early 1970s, when we started keeping data on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, United States students have made no appreciable improvements in language arts or math.  On the PISA and PIAAC assessments, our students are falling further behind other nations in reading, math, and problem-solving.


But rather than consider the flawed design of our system, we focus on blaming teachers, or parents, or students.  No amount of tweaking or added pressure can significantly improve the outcomes of a coverage-driven system. That system is designed to cover, test, and sort students.  It was never designed to help every student become a good learner for life.


  1. What have I neglected to ask? 

The issue of equity is important to consider in this discussion.  In a system that uses one-size-fits-all instruction vulnerable children are especially likely to struggle.  Poor kids, or kids with any handicap or delay in development, are getting murdered in our present system of education.


According to the NAEP (2013) among 12th grade students only 26 percent of all students score at or above proficient levels in math, and 38 percent are proficient or better in reading. Among African American twelfth grade students tested, 7 percent are proficient or better in math and 16 percent are proficient or better in reading.


Looking to the future, students who have good learning skills and love to learn will have incredible opportunities to find good jobs and economic success.  But the majority of children who struggle and fail to thrive in our present educational system will not find those opportunities.  By focusing on the development of essential learning outcomes and building clear pathways to higher level skills, competency based learning systems have the potential to give all our kids a chance to become successful learners for life.


Bob Sornson, Ph.D. is the founder of the Early Learning Foundation.  He is a national leader calling for programs and practices which support early learning success, competency based learning, and parent enga