Beyond $$: How to Sustain Competency-Based Education

by Chris Sturgis

Please note: This article is ever-under construction as everyone I talk with has another incredible valuable insight.

When it comes to creating state policy to sustain competency-based education (CBE is also fondly known as proficiency-, performance-, or mastery-based education), there seem to be two big questions that float among the halls and zoom-rooms of state leadership:

  1. How do states initiate or support schools that want to become CBE?
  2. How can states sustain CBE?

The first question has been documented well enough to get a pretty good picture of what strategies states have been trying over the past 15 years. However, Maine was the only state that took a critical eye to understand the ins and outs of implementation and no evaluations were used to determine if some strategies have been more effective than others. The second question is an important one to tackle but has not received any formal conversation or study as of yet. Perhaps it’s because we haven’t reached the point where CBE has proven itself as a better approach. My own analysis is that it requires state policymakers and administrators to  reflect deeply in a way that is rarely done. (The only time I’ve seen it was during the rush to ‘reinvent government’ which I will mention again further on).

Now, we need to be careful as we dive into what it takes to fully sustain high quality CBE. Sustainability is often  a code word for costs, especially when there is large philanthropic funding for new programming that expects to be absorbed by government funding at the end of five years. CBE has been lucky not to have zillions of dollars thrown at it.  

I want to be perfectly clear. During my 14 years of interviewing CBE leaders, there is absolutely no evidence that CBE costs more than the traditional model. Certainly, additional funding for the transition to CBE—planning, visiting high quality CBE schools, professional learning, and introducing an effective student information management system designed to monitor learning and growth—is incredibly valuable. However, CBE can be implemented within the same (undercapitalized and inequitable) school budgets in just the same way the traditional model is done. 

However, it is likely that if the CBE model is well-developed (and not just a tweak like standards-referenced grading where standards are used to monitor progress but the school isn’t redesigned to ensure that students actually reach proficiency), it is likely that costs will be allocated differently. Start by thinking about costs and benefits. For example, the benefit of strong school cultures where students have a deep sense of ownership is often ignored. During a visit to Lindsay Unified after it had laid a strong foundation for its performance-based system, Tom Rooney pointed out to me that they had been able to reallocate some funds away from janitorial to educational services as students now took more responsibility for the cleanliness of the campus. As we sat on a bench in the open space in the center of the school buildings we watched two different students pick up trash that other students had left behind.

A second lens to uncover different cost allocations is to think about effective use of resources (or on the flip side, wasted resources). Students don’t waste time sitting in a haze of confusion day after day when they are missing the prior knowledge necessary to make sense of the content. Students aren’t tested when everyone knows they are not near proficiency yet or already exceeding. No one repeats content they know and can do in regular class or in summer school. That’s why Kettle-Moraine School District considered a personalized, CBE system to be more cost-effective than the traditional model. (And also why Chugach won the Baldridge Award when it redesigned it’s district). Ahhh, that’s one of the key differences between the traditional approach to look at costs whereas those leaders seeking to modernize education will be thinking about cost-effectiveness.  

It’s possible that once a district or school converts to competency-based education there are ways that additional funding might be a game changer. We might discover that with a highly personalized approach some additional funding to support specific capacities could result in enormous gains for our most vulnerable students. However, we need to be able to more clearly understand the implications of specific elements of the CBE model to tackle that type of evaluation.  

Even if CBE did cost more money and states upped the budgets, would it be enough to sustain it? I think not. In fact, there are aspects of state policy that are terribly harmful as they keep the out-dated traditional model in place. Thus, to truly sustain CBE state policy leaders need to tackle the question: How does state policy support or undermine schools’ ability to draw upon the research on learning to maximize student learning? 

Creating and Sustaining State Policy for Learning

What would it look like to have state policy aligned with how students learn? It’s hard to imagine because we are so very far away from thinking that way. Do state policy leaders and administrators know the research on learning? Do they understand the impact of their policies on schools? Do they even consider the organizational impact on learning in setting rules, timelines, and regulations as important? Most likely meeting the needs of the state legislature, governor, and federal government are driving their decision-making.

If we did think about alignment with learning when considering state policy, regulations, and the operational details involved in state administrative duties, where would we start? Here are three questions to get us warmed up:

What are the desired learning outcomes and how does state policy support and monitor them? 

We’ve spent decades clarifying what we expect students to know and do through the academic standards movement. As that movement peaked and then began to falter, states and districts introduced profiles of graduates that established what students needed to be successful after they left schools with a range of skills and traits such as problem-solving, collaboration, communication, global citizenship, and more. Simultaneously, schools began to pay attention to the learn-to-learn skills (or lifelong learning skills) students needed for both academic learning and the powerful life skills. Thus, districts and schools are now are juggling three sets of learning outcomes—learn-to-learn, life skills and traits, and academic content—with state policy and state accountability testing generally out of sync with the comprehensive set of student outcomes. 

How does state policy impact the ability of schools to create powerful cultures of learning? 

Inherent in any bureaucracy is a tendency to be top-down, rule-oriented, inflexible, and judgmental. Alas, these qualities are nearly opposite those related to a strong culture of learning. Thus, strong state leadership is needed to define, promote and nurture a different set of behaviors. It’s not impossible. I’m old enough to remember the days when states, counties and cities embraced David Osborne’s strategies to reinvent government based on a customer service model. 

If state policy embraced a few of the core ideas from the research on learning—developing growth mindsets; considering prior knowledge and experience; culturally responsive; promoting intrinsic motivation through relationships, autonomy and mastery—what might it look like? Core curriculum might include how we learn. There might be flexibilty in social sciences to offer opportunities for students to pursue high interest areas and analysis. Students and teachers would receive positive recognition for filling gaps. Shame and blame would be a thing of the past.  

One of the policies that is most problematic is the constant focus on grades and GPA. As we know traditional grading has little to do with learning and contributes to many students disengaging with learning and school. A great project for state government to do would be to collect all examples where grades and the GPA are used within reporting, grants, scholarships, etc. 

What data is collected, why is it collected and how is it used? 

One of the big functions of state government is collecting data. It collects it for itself and it collects it for the federal government as well. We all know that the information that is measured and collected are the things that get our attention. It doesn’t mean that the information collected is more important, it’s often just easier to measure and collect. It also contorts and warps our education system. My heart still breaks when I remember the story I heard while visiting Westminster School District years ago. High school teachers, already without enough time to work closely with students, were asked to enter data twice. One set of data was based on monitoring student learning and growth. The other was to meet the needs of the state reporting policies. Obviously, this did not prove sustainable and as you can imagine the demands from the state for data trumped those for student learning.

Wouldn’t it be powerful if there was a project that dived into the weeds of data collection in the education system to examine what, when and how data is collected and who, how and when that data is used and for what purposes? In what way is that data and its collection helping to create and reinforce cultures of learning based on the research on learning? What is the cost and benefits of data collection? Do we really need annual data or is every other year enough? How do the most developed competency-based systems like Chugach, Building 21, Big Picture and Kettle-Moraine collect and use data? What would be the ideal set of data collected and used to help schools, district and the state align with the research to maximize learning?

How would state policy that promotes high expectations and equity be structured?

Most of our educational state policy relies on reporting, testing, with a strong orientation of districts and schools being accountable to the state. Although CBE schools kee their eyes on students and their learning, they are always looking over their shoulder to figure out how to manage state rules and regulations. 

Are there other ways to structure state policy where districts and schools are able to form mutual accountability with parents and communities? (Okay, I know that is hard to imagine right now since some communities are torn in half with our ongoing debates about parental rights and responsibilities, culture, identity, liberty, and the future of America. But for now let’s just imagine that civil discourse can be reclaimed.) The most inspirational model I’ve seen is New Zealand (about the same population as Colorado, so it’s easy to imagine it as a statewide or regional model). Expectations are very clear but there are multiple ways for schools and students to choose to demonstrate that they are meeting them. Students can choose to take examinations or demonstrate their learning in other ways. The key is that a national organization does sampling to ensure that schools are maintaining consistency in determining proficiency. There are also efforts to promote calibration across schools. 


This quick reflection isn’t nearly adequate to what is needed to re-align state policy with the research on learning. What’s really needed is a national organization or educational intermediary to tackle the question by drawing together three groups of experts: school and district practitioners that have fully implemented CBE and other research-aligned efforts like culturally responsive education and project-based learning; experts in the research on learning from multiple fields such as cognition, social-emotional, motivation and youth development; and state policy specialists and the administrators who know the very, very teensy weensy pieces of how state policy is operationalized. Bringing together experts with such different perspectives isn’t going to be easy. They’ll need some common experiences to begin to bridge the different lenses. A few school visits of high quality CBE might be a powerful first step. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *