Stepping Stones to Mastery

Stepping Stones to Mastery

Principal, September/October 2016

Stepping Stones to Mastery: How competency based learning creates personalized pathways to success for young learners.

By Bob Sornson

Every day, educators have the opportunity to shape young lives and help create our society’s future. But, as a nation, we have struggled to find ways to boost learning outcomes for many of our students. Decades of school reform have, unfortunately, produced long lists of content expectation and scripted one-size-fits-all instructional programs which have not succeeded in improving national outcomes. Decades of state and national testing have produced data that sort students, schools, teachers, communities, and sub-groups into winners and losers, but has not helped to improve the learning outcomes of our most vulnerable students.

There’s an emerging educational trend that offers hope: competency based learning. Competency based learning systems can help educators significantly improve learning outcomes and also bring back the joy to teaching and learning.

Competency based learning offers a fundamental systems change to the way we organize and deliver instruction. Rather than delivering grade-level content to all students in accordance with a pacing guide and a rigid curriculum, competency based learning identifies crucial learning skills in a developmental sequence. Teachers deliver personalized instruction for these behavioral and academic outcomes. For crucial skills, students are given instruction and practice for as long as needed to develop deep understanding. Students advance and move ahead in the sequence of skills based on demonstration of mastery.

How It Works

A competency based learning model is based on simple principles.

  1. Set meaningful, clear learning goals.

     2. Assess student skills and readiness.

     3. Offer instruction for crucial learning outcomes at the student’s readiness level.

     4. Monitor progress and adjust instruction until these skills and objectives are deeply understood, giving learners the time needed to build competency.

     5. Allow students to move on to more advanced learning when they are ready.

Competency based learning starts with the clear and concise identification of essential learning outcomes. Students are assessed to determine their level of instructional readiness, and then instruction is offered along a sequence of essential skills. Ongoing monitoring allows the student to progress toward competency as quickly as possible, or to allow more time for instruction and practice as necessary. But competency is not earned with a letter grade on a one-time test. The goal in a competency based learning system is complete understanding and the ability to apply any crucial knowledge or skill as needed in school or in life.

Why the Time is Right

The growth of competency based learning is in direct response to a growing awareness of the limitations of our age-based, time-limited, standardized one-size-fits-all learning programs.

The pressure for improved test scores has become a driving force within most schools. Our use of one-size-fits-all curricula has produced a lot of anxiety but very few improved learning outcomes. Teachers struggle to manage behavior and build classroom culture while racing through the curriculum and keeping up with the assessment schedule. Students whose skills are a poor match for the curriculum fall into a pattern of frustration and discouragement. Without the skills to succeed, these students eventually disengage from learning and look for other ways to get attention.

In response, states such as New Hampshire and Maine have transitioned to using a competency framework in place of traditional Carnegie Units and seat time for high school graduation requirements. Instead of accumulating credits (which may not reflect any durable skills or knowledge), these states have established a clear learning sequence to skills that matter.

Many other states have passed legislation to allow students to earn credit for required classes based on competency, or have initiated study projects to consider the transition to competency based learning systems. Scores of universities have moved toward competency based learning systems, reflecting the needs of learners who may wish to progress at their own pace, take advantage of previously developed skills, or ensure that they develop skills that make them competitive in the workforce.

Competency and Early Learning

During the early childhood learning years, Preschool through Grade 3, competency based learning can be used to help young students have the learning experiences that set a positive trajectory for learning for life. High-quality early learning programs support social and emotional skills which correlate with lower rates of drug use and criminal behavior along with more stable relationships and improved earning power. Effective early learning programs support the development of academic skills which predict long-term learning success and improved work opportunities.

To support competency based learning in preschool and primary grade classrooms, my organization, the Early Learning Foundation, has developed the Essential Skill Inventories as a competency framework. Preschool, Kindergarten and First, Second, and Third Grade have separate inventories which list behaviors and learning skills which are crucial for long-term learning success. Focusing on the whole child, the inventories track development of essential skills in oral language, sensory motor skills, behavior and self-regulation, self-care, phonologic skills, literacy, and numeracy.

The Essential Skill Inventories are not a curriculum or a set of content standards which should be “covered”. They are a competency framework that can be used along with any quality curriculum or learning materials.

Inside a Competency Based Classroom

In a competency based early childhood classroom, the teacher has a clear set of non-negotiable learning outcomes for every student. These are the outcomes for which “coverage” is not enough. Some students may already have a skill before ever coming to school, while other students may be developing at a different rate or with different opportunities for learning in the home. In a competency based classroom we accept the fact that students come to us with differing levels of readiness. For any of the essential skills, we promise to give kids the instruction they need, at their level of readiness, for as long as needed to develop complete and absolute proficiency.

Using a competency based system, teachers collect baseline data as they get to know their students, and then use observational formative assessment to continually update data throughout the school year. Educators use this information to know precisely which kids need more time or instruction to develop each essential skill. By analyzing weekly data, teachers will know which students are struggling with a skill, which students are developing normally but not yet proficient, and those who are fully ready to move forward to more advanced learning challenges. With this information, the teacher can plan small groups, or centers, or any type of instruction that specifically matches the needs of each student.

For instance, in kindergarten, there are four numeracy skills determined to be crucial foundational skills that must be well-learned to allow students to understand higher level math skills. One of the four skills is: Recognizes number groups without counting (2 to 10). To achieve competency in this skill requires that a student can look at any ordered display of items (like dots on a die or domino) and quickly name the value, without having to slow down and count the dots. This skill is often referred to as subitizing.

Proficiency for this subitizing is demonstrated by the student’s ability to quickly name any set of objects representing a number value from 2 to 10, on three or more days, using three or more differing activities materials or learning contexts, consistently for at least a couple of weeks. Only then should she given the status of proficient for this skill. The teacher might observe a student while she is engaged in a small group learning activity that includes number patterns on a domino on one day, using patterns on a paper plate on a different day, and using an abacus on a different day. The teacher will observe that the student can easily manage to recognize the value of any group up to ten, with complete accuracy, even with distractions around her. In certifying that this student is competent, the teacher is using her professional judgement that this skill is well-learned to the degree that this student will never un-learn or forget how to subitize.

A few children come to kindergarten already knowing how to subitize. Others will learn it during a planned two week math unit; other students might take months to develop this skill to proficiency. In the competency based classroom, the teacher recognizes this developmental variance and gives students what they need, at an appropriate instructional level, for as long as needed.

Preparing instruction for a competency based classroom is different than the standard delivery of curriculum to all students in the same way. Some activities, projects, and information can be “covered,” and serve as an opportunities to enrich, explore, or extend learning. On a given day, math instruction might include a building project using small groups of students with varied levels of skill. Working together they can have fun, build social skills, language skills and collaboration skills, and contribute to the math that is needed for this project. On another day math instruction might include centers that allow the teacher to create activities for leveled learning activities, or small groups of students at the same level, or mixed groups which allow more advanced math students to support the learning of other students. Because she is aware of the skill level of each student in relation to any essential math skill, she is able to refine her instructional plans weekly or daily to ensure that within the year, almost every student will achieve true competency for these essential skills, and many will progress to even more advanced levels.

Impact and The Principal’s Role

The role of the Principal is crucial for the successful implementation of a competency based early learning initiative. For decades we have trained teachers to cover a lesson and then move forward in the curriculum. We’ve emphasized keeping up with the pacing guide and “covering” all the Common Core State Standards. We’ve required teachers to use standardized assessment data to prove that students had successfully learned content or skills.

The transformation to competency based learning requires instructional leadership and consistent support from building principals. In monthly data meetings, principals review:
 which skills/domains the teachers assessed each week
 how teachers were able to embed observational formative assessment into daily instruction
 which students moved from Developing to Proficient status
 how proficiency/competency was noted through multiple observations using a variety of learning materials
 which students still need extra instructional time to achieve grade level objectives
 which students have moved ahead to above grade level learning goals

Giving students instruction at their level of readiness improves learning outcomes (Gickling and Armstrong, 1978; Burns, 2007). Our own research clearly shows that student learning outcomes on standardized assessments are significantly improved by focusing at-level instruction on achieving proficiency in the essential skills (Sornson and Davis, 2013).
Teachers also benefit from competency based programs. Teachers using the Essential Skills Inventory report that their use of systematic assessment results in improved relationships, improved understanding of the needs of the whole child, and improved quality of differentiated instruction (Sornson, 2015).

To introduce competency based learning, a principal should first reflect on where your school stands with learning outcomes and competence. Ask yourself:
1. How do we approach academic rigor? Are we maximizing learning by helping each student spend time learning essential skills at the correct instructional match?
2. Do our teachers have clear standards for student learning, or do they have vague standards for what to include into the curriculum coverage plan?
3. What is the difference between “coverage” and competency?
4. Where might one-size-fits-all, scripted, or rigidly paced learning programs be falling short for students?
5. How do we support students who have fallen behind? How might we do this better with a competency based learning approach?
6. If we focus on the Essential Skills, is there any reason why we could not help at least 90% of our students develop competency during the early childhood learning years?

For most educators, using a competency model is new and challenging. For some adults, change comes hard. When introducing competency based learning to your staff, principals would be wise to take small steps. Share articles. Download free resources at Share books, like Over-Tested and Under-Prepared, or Fanatically Formative. Consider a book club. Find teacher leaders who can help you plan next steps and build a strong consensus for a systems change toward competency.

Continued reliance on the time-limited delivery of standard instructional objectives for all students ensures that some learners will be bored and vulnerable students will be severely damaged as learners. It is past time for a systems change to a personalized, competency based learning model. We can choose to give all our students a chance to succeed in their crucial early childhood years. And we can build a model for learning that helps our teachers and our students build the connection between learning and joy.

Bob Sornson is an author and consultant who focuses on competency based learning, early learning success, and parent education.


Gickling, E. E., & Armstrong, D. L. (1978). Levels of instructional difficulty as related to on-task behavior, task completion, and comprehension. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 11, 32–39.
Burns, M. K. (2007). Reading at the instructional level with children identified as learning disabled: Potential implications for response to intervention. School Psychology Quarterly, 22, 297-313.
Sornson, B. (2015). The Effects of Using the Essential Skills Inventory on Teacher Perception of High-Quality Classroom Instruction, Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 59:3, 161-167.
Sornson, Bob and Davis, Debbie (2013). Focus on Essential Learning Outcomes, Journal of Research Initiatives: Vol. 1: Iss. 1, Article 8,