Competency Based Education

Colorado, has mandated a seven-year transition from our current seat-time/Carnegie Unit based system to one based on the demonstrated mastery of a portfolio of clearly defined competencies. This is consistent with a broader trend towards life long learning, the accumulation of individual portfolios of certified competencies that can be combined in different ways, and the use of competency requirements to define what is needed to perform jobs and projects.

For more on these trends, read these two great papers: “The Degree is Doomed” and “Separating Learning from Credentialling.” And if you want to see a glimpse of the future, you need look no further than the UK and EU, where a structured approach to certified competencies is already bridging the gaps between training, education, and lifetime learning.

For example, here are initial attempts to translate current state standards into a progression of competencies in reading and writing, social studies, math, and science.

Moving to competency based education will also enable students to progress at their own pace, and enable much more differentiated and individualized instruction, most likely utilizing a combination of teacher and technology provided instruction.

The good news is that the results of early competency based education experiments have been very encouraging; for example, Colorado’s Adams 50, a district with a high percentage of free and reduced lunch eligible students, has produced very significant improvements in achievement results after three years of competency implementation.

The bad news is that the transition from seat-time to competency-based education is a challenging one for a district to undertake (e.g., it took Adams 50 three years to start producing significant achievement improvements). However, if there is one innovation that merits the often overused “disruptive” label, we believe it is the move to competency-based education in K-12 and beyond.

This report provides an excellent overview of competency-based approaches in K12, (here is a shorter overview) and this report from RAND provides progress updates on competency-based pilots that are underway around the nation. And here is the later RAND study on competency based education. Here is a more in-depth analysis of competency based education initiatives and results in three states.

Here is a paper that describes competency based approaches used in other countries. And here is a good NPR story on the transition to competency-based education, and another good description of how it has been implemented by Summit Schools. Finally, here is a good article on the implementation of competency based education in higher education.

Even the Carnegie Foundation, the inventors of the "Carnegie Unit" that is the heart of our "seat time" based education system, has recognized that things have to change. Here is their new report on the evolution to competency based education. And here and here are two critiques of the Carnegie Foundation Report, which essentially say they didn't go far enough.

Here are two good reports on implementing CBE, one on the supporting information technology that is often needed (closely related to this paper on how blended learning is related to CBE), and one on the additional student supports that a CBE approach requires. And here is another on the implications of competency based education for assessment.

If you suspect that competency based education will encounter significant resistance from K12 systems that have been built around the seat-time concept, you are right, as this article describes.

If you want to stay on top of the latest developments in competency based education, I'd strongly recommend the Christensen Institute, and the excellent email updates and research publications they offer.

RAND has just published a new report on the implementation of competency based education in Texas.

And here is a good new comparative analysis of competency based education pilots in three states.