Let’s Talk Competency-Based Education

What is it, what are the benefits, and how can your district or K-12 school get started?

The implementation of competency-based education (CBE) models continues to grow, We understand that CBE options are currently being put into practice in approximately 49 states. With its potential to empower students, bridge equity gaps, and achieve measurable results for students, many schools, districts, and states have implemented different forms of competency-based education. But it is not without its challenges. Let’s take a deeper look at what competency-based education is, what some potential benefits are, and what it looks like in practice.

What is competency-based education and how can it benefit students?

Competency-based pedagogy transitions away from “seat time” in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allowing students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. It is also important to note that a competency-based system can integrate with state-level standards. For example, a 2017 report from the institute of Education Sciences documented how one Colorado school aligns its CBE approach to the state standard using performance levels: “Performance levels are analogous to grade levels… Performance levels are organized around a series of learning targets that are aligned to state standards.”

In a CBE classroom, when students can prove that they have mastered the task at hand they progress to the next level, concept, or content area, rather than waiting until the next class to move on or moving on before they are ready. This approach to student learning is designed to foster engagement, student agency, and motivation.

However, it is also important to note it has been challenging for some CBE models to scale, especially to the state level. For example, reporting around a statewide rollout of a CBE system in Maine indicated that efforts to implement CBE state-wide led to confusion from parents around how CBE compared to traditional structures like A-F grading, honors/recognitions, and exams.

Much work is still needed to implement the promising competency-based strategies that can provide students with personalized learning opportunities. These strategies include the greater use of online learning, dual enrollment and early college high schools, project-based, and community-based learning, among others. This type of learning can enhance student engagement because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs. Early research suggests that it also can lead to better student outcomes because the pace of learning is customized to each student, especially for students who are behind grade level.

Many of these strategies come to life using technology — from devices to learning management systems — that allow students to be able to move at their own pace and for educators to be able to use data to better understand their students’ progress and needs. Additionally, in many cases students are also engaging with technology in a way that is interactive and meaningful due to the personalized and project-based nature of CBE.

Q&A With an Expert and a Practitioner

Efforts to expand the quality of CBE systems are continuously growing as a result of contributions from various organizations, state leaders, districts, and schools have invested in this education reform. Organizations like the Aurora Institute, Digital Promise, The Learning Accelerator, and more all have worked to advance and expand the CBE framework. For this blog, I sat down with Eliot Levine, an expert on competency-based education from the Aurora Institute. The Aurora Institute focuses on advancing policies, best practices, and research on quality learning through initiatives like CompetencyWorks.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Q: What does it mean to say that competency-based education values mastery over seat time?

A: The traditional system doesn’t take into account sufficiently that students make progress at different paces and need different types of supports. This means some students master certain competencies quickly but can’t move ahead, and other students are required to move ahead before they’re ready. Rather than saying “all students must master the following set of competencies in exactly one school year” — that’s a seat-time approach — competency-based education enables students to move at different paces while also providing supports to ensure that students are making progress toward graduation by about age 18.

Q: Have schools in your network seen the benefits of their model in their transition to remote learning.

A: Several schools and districts that are implementing competency-based education have told us that their transition to remote learning was smoother because students were already more accustomed to having some agency and ownership in their own education, such as taking initiative to move forward even without constant teacher supervision. This was facilitated by the technology and learning management systems that were already in place which made learning expectations and materials more explicit and transparent.

Q: How does CBE support other frameworks for teaching and learning?

A: CBE can be used alongside other frameworks to advance educational equity. For example, CBE is not inherently culturally relevant, but when CBE is paired with culturally relevant practices it has the potential to more fully meet the needs of historically underserved students in a way that is empowering and culturally responsive.

There are a number of schools and districts across the nation that have been using a competency-based pedagogy to transform their schools. Other interesting examples of districts from various states implementing a competency-based model include the Lindsay Unified School District in California, the Chugach School District in Alaska, and the Eastern Carver County District in Minnesota.

To better understand one school’s use of CBE, we sat down with John Clemente, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the South Bronx Community Charter High School, which started implementing CBE in 2015, to talk about some of the benefits they have noticed since getting started.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Q: How does CBE compliment the other elements in your approach to instruction?

A: Because of its emphasis on learning rooted in real world skills, engagement, and learning from the community, CBE can complement culturally relevant teachings. A competency-based system encourages the seamless incorporation of community-based and project-based learning and assessment to reach real world skills and academic standards. For example, at the South Bronx Community Charter High School, the staff launched an interdisciplinary challenge to begin the school year where students took the lead on designing the curriculum. Dubbed, the Think Tank Challenge, this challenge gave students the opportunity to drive the curriculum development process. The project focused on mastering competencies like, “I can articulate complex thoughts and ideas in writing”, or “I can obtain, evaluate, and communicate information.” The evaluation was also consistent with CBE’s emphasis on real world problem solving, and the presentations for this challenge were judged by fellow students, experts in the field, staff, and community members. The winning projects get integrated into the curriculum during the school year.

Q: How did your CBE approach affect the experience of teachers and students during remote learning?

A: The fact that each student already had a clear vision of their learning pathway helped to facilitate the transition to remote learning. These learning pathways served to clarify the skills that needed to be attained, and gave student’s options for attaining each skill, so they could take agency over their learning. Even in face-to-face learning, students don’t want to wait for the teacher to speak to know what is going on in class. With a competency-based system, if students need to move on, they see it on the syllabus and in the learning management system and they can move on, which empowers the learner and makes students more in charge of and confident in their own learning.

How do you get started?

Transitions to competency-based can take place at a classroom, school or district level. Education leaders across the system can begin by exploring what CBE would look like in their context. To get started implementing competency-based education and learning, you will need to identify the competencies that students will work towards mastering including how they align and integrate with required state standards, the plan and vision for how students will achieve them and how teachers will support students, and the tools, training, and technology to make it all happen.

Eliot Levine from the Aurora Institute explains that: “[Schools] begin to learn about key practices of competency-based education through readings, conferences, and district/state initiatives. Working closely with strong professional development providers who have deep knowledge of personalized, competency-based education, they often begin a multi-year effort to adopt competency-based practices at deeper levels.”

Additionally, many organizations that specialize in competency-based education have various resources on their websites that are helpful when considering a competency-based model. For example, Digital Promise offers a Competency-Based Education Toolkit. The Learning Accelerator has resources to assist with topics ranging from training to measuring progress of competency-based learning. The Aurora Institute also has many resources and forums discussing competency-based education and how to get started. If you are interested in this model of education and feel like it could better empower and meet the needs of the students in your school, district, or state, there are many experts and places who have adopted CBE that can help you determine if this model is right for you and help you start your journey.

The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the U.S. Department of Education. No official endorsement by the U.S. Department of Education of any publication, product, commodity, service or enterprise mentioned in this publication is intended or should be inferred. For the reader’s convenience, this posting contains examples of potentially useful information. Inclusion of such information does not constitute an endorsement by the Department or a preference for these examples as compared with others that might be presented. Additionally, this discussion should not imply an endorsement of any organization, curriculum, or learning model.



The Office of Educational Technology (OET) provides leadership for maximizing technology's contribution to improving education at all levels.

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The Office of Educational Technology (OET) provides leadership for maximizing technology's contribution to improving education at all levels.