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What is competency-based education?

As an approach to harnessing innovation and improvement and to rapidly increasing student performance, competency-based education calls for a radical redesign of the way we think about and organize learning and teaching.  Competency-based education allows students to advance or earn credit based on mastery or what they can demonstrate they know or are able to do. Competency-based pathways provide ways to validate learning of standards that occurs outside the structure of the traditional school and offer flexibility for schools to engage students in learning that moves beyond the traditional constraints of seat time and divisions among content areas. The goal of these pathways is to provide opportunities for students to advance regardless of age or amount of time in the classroom, online, or in a setting off campus.  These reforms provide opportunities for districts and schools to create student-centered, personalized learning systems through which students of all ages develop both ownership and control of their own learning. Competency-based education has the potential to allow educators and students to better connect learning to students’ interests.

See the Iowa Department of Education Guidelines for PK-12 Competency-based Pathways


For background on defining competency-based education, identifying and assessing the characteristics of competencies, measuring competencies, evaluating outcomes, data reliability and validity, see the following report from Dr. Elizabeth Jones, who will share her research at the forum.  While the report focuses a great deal on post-secondary education, the issues and research translate into secondary education and large sections also discuss the transition from secondary to post-secondary education.

  • Jones, E. A., Voorhees, R. A., & Paulson, K. Defining and assessing learning: Exploring competency-based initiatives, Washington, DC: Council of the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative Working Group on Competency-Based Initiatives, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.   We have excerpted pages 1-33 as the key focus for the reading.  For the complete report click HERE.

For background on defining competency-based education, emerging policy areas around these reforms, supporting these reforms at the district and state level, and discussion of competency-based reforms in Alabama, Oregon, New Hampshire and  Florida, see the following article from Susan Patrick of iNACOL, a presenter and discussant at the forum.

  • Patrick, Susan, Pittenger, Linda & Sturgis, Chris.  It’s not a matter of time:  highlights from the 2011 competency-based learning summit.  Council of Chief State School Officers and International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

Additional Readings

For more information from the Iowa Department of Education about competency-based reforms, see:

  • Guidelines for PK-12 Competency-based Pathways
  •  One Unshakable Vision:  World-Class Schools for Iowa

    Additional Readings Relating to Forum Presenters

The following readings relate specifically to individual presenters or have been shared by presenters:

For more information from participating Chugach School District in Alaska and their transformation from personalized learning to competency-based education, see:

Note that the following reading is a book and is not available through a link.

  • Richard A. Delorenzo, Wendy J. Battino, Rick M. Schreiber, and Barbara Gaddy Carrio.  Delivering on the Promise:  The Education Revolution

For more information relating to the breakout session titled Getting Started, co-facilitated by Deb Hansen, Senior Policy Analyst, West Wind Education Policy Inc., and Jeff Henderson, Superintendent, Archdiocese of Dubuque Schools, see:

  • The National Implementation Research Network (NIRN).  NIRN provides resources pertaining to the science and practice of implementation in relation to evidence-based programs and practices.

For more information from Ron Fielder, Clinical Professor, Education Policy and Leadership Studies, University of Iowa, see:

Note that all of these are books and are not available online.

  • Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown.   A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change
  • Martin J. Bradley, Robert H. Seidman and Steven R. Painchaud.  Saving Higher Education: The Integrated, Competency-Based Three-Year Bachelor's Degree Program

  • James Bellanca and Ron Brandt.  21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn

For more information from speaker Paul Leather at the New Hampshire Department of Education, see:

  • Report:  New Hampshire's vision for redesign: Moving from high schools to learning communities.  We suggest reading pages 16-23.

For more information relating to Jim Lindsay's, REL Midwest and AIR, presentation see: 

  • Gajda, Rebecca & Jennifer Jewiss (2004). Thinking about how to evaluate your program? These strategies will get you started. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 9(8). Retrieved December 6, 2011 from http://PAREonline.net/getvn.asp?v=9&n=8.

For more information from speaker Susan Patrick and iNACOL, see:

  • Susan Patrick and Linda Pittenger, Council of Chief State School Officers and iNACOL:  Cracking the code:  Synchronizing policy and practice for performance-based learning
  •  Competency-based Pathways, a wiki maintained by iNACOL.

 Other Materials

The following video relates specifically to Terry Kaldhusal's, Teacher, Magee Elementary School, Kettle Moraine (WI) School District presentation:


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