What Does it Mean to Advance Based on Competency, not Time?

In traditional education, students advance to the next set of content or grade level when the pacing guide says or when the school year is over. They advance whether or not they have actually mastered the content, and this is a problem! Think about learning like building a house. If you move on to the second floor with major sections of the first floor missing or unstable, the house will be shaky at best. Or, it will collapse. The same is true with education. When students advance between units or grade levels with gaps in their learning, these gaps grow steadily over time, destabilizing their learning.

Modern education recognizes that students need different amounts of time to learn concepts and skills deeply. What matters is not how much time they took to learn something, but that they truly learned it in the first place. So in a student-centered, personalized, competency-based system each student advances when they have demonstrated that they have mastered learning goals, not when the pacing guide says it’s time. Each student knows where they are in their learning, and each student has the support they need to make progress. These last two points are really critical. Some people worry that competency-based progression means “letting students move at their own pace,” and worry that it will ket students who start behind stay behind. But this is not true. Competency-based progression is not about limiting or stigmatizing students. It is about taking responsibility for ensuring all students learn, providing the right supports so they can learn, and helping students overcome prior learning gaps, however large. To do this, teachers closely monitor each student’s progress and pace, providing supports and scaffolds to help them move forward and close gaps.

What will you need in place to help students advance based on mastery?

  • Competency-based curriculum. To advance based on demonstrations of competencies, students need to engage in learning where they have the chance to demonstrate those competencies. Traditional education focuses on moving kids rapidly through a long list of standards, usually at a very basic level. This is a problem for two big reasons. One, student success requires more than a basic grasp of a litany of standards. Research shows that success in college, career and life demands transferable skills and the skills and dispositions that promote lifelong learning. Two, this “broad and shallow” model presents a challenge for students with prior learning gaps. When students have to cover many years worth of standards in a short amount of time to make up for lost learning, school can becomes can be disengaging (what’s fun about rapid-speed rote learning?) and progress can seem next to impossible. To address these two flaws, competency-based systems emphasize deep understanding: mastery of key concepts and skills that students can apply to meaningful problems and contexts and also to future learning. Competency-based approaches design courses, units, and projects around deeper learning competencies, balancing breadth and depth. This ensures students learn what matters, and makes it possible to close gaps.
  • Meeting students where they are. A traditional system teaches and tests students based on their grade level, and according to a set assessment calendar. We’re so used to this that it can be hard to see past it. But this approach is fundamentally at odds with a competency-based approach! If we want to be sure students actuallymaster core learning, we have to meet them where they are in their learning, not where they are based on their age or the particular date and time. Sometimes, this means thinking really differently about grade-leveling as the mechanism for student grouping. In all cases it means helping teachers know how to assess where a student is in their learning, and provide scaffolds and supports to give them the right amount of stretch.
  • Attention to progress and pace. When you loosen the reins on time, it becomes even more important to pay close attention to students’ progress and pace. Without this, “moving at one’s own pace” could in fact slip into dangerous territory, letting students who start behind stay behind. Instead, teachers in competency-based systems know what meaningful progress looks like for each students, and know what learning pace will get or keep that student on track to meet expectations. Teachers and students share responsibility for this work, using assessment and feedback data to reflect on students’ learning and make adjustments as necessary.
  • Timely, differentiated supports. Meeting students where are means providing timely and differentiated supports. In the traditional system, students get supports when they are behind. In a modern system, they get the supports they need when they need them before they get behind. Supports are not remedial, they are core to all learning for all students.