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Leadership Best Practices | Support for Teachers

Competency-Based Learning and District Leaders in Personalized Education Models

March 11th, 2021

beautiful young girl with headset is sitting in front of her laptop during corona timeAcross the country, schools, districts, and states are replacing the traditional, time-based student education investment structure with one that is optimized to help each student reach academic proficiency. This competency-based or personalized approach to educational outcomes could help you and your teachers maximize your results with a more efficient approach to student development.

What Is Competency-Based Learning?

Competency-based learning is an educational modality that focuses on a student’s demonstration of desired learning outcomes. Its primary focus is on the student’s progression through the established curriculum, regardless of the student’s pace, thus eliminating institute-imposed expectations for the achievement of learning deadlines.

In traditional time-based education, the school year expects students to accomplish specific academic milestones. All students in a class must be the same age, and the students progress together to each new lesson regardless of whether or not everyone has achieved a solid foundational understanding of the topic.

The competency-based learning approach enables each student to learn at their own pace by allowing them to progress to the next skill set or educational component only when they have mastered the preceding material—not when the curriculum schedule dictates the class advance to the next topic. Teachers, parents, and school leaders support students in their individualized learning plans while giving students ownership over their academic goals, the ability to focus their interests, and most importantly, the ability to learn at their own pace.

Competency-based learning is similar to mastery-based learning; however, the former focuses on observable skills, where the latter focuses more on conceptual understanding. While competency-based learning is still a developing and expanding modality, awareness and interest among educators, district leaders, and parents is growing.

The Advantages of Competency-Based Learning

A well-executed competency-based learning model offers:

  • Flexibility for each student to advance at their own pace.
  • The ability to accommodate students of different literacy levels and other inherent aptitudes.
  • The use of external resources and tools for students to self-manage their competency development.
  • Flexibility in how teachers award credit and issue grades.
  • Improved student engagement through the use of learning content tailored to each student’s needs.
  • Reduced time and financial investment in each class’s progress.
  • Opportunities to create multiple pathways to graduation.
  • The prioritization of skills such as communication, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration.
  • Equity as students progress at their own pace and the class achieves mastery as a group.
  • A focus on the next stage of the student’s life as they progress to career preparation and the workforce.
  • Improved student academic outcomes.Steve Barkley

Helpful Resource: Listen to this interview with our partner Steve Barkley and school principal Brian Stack as they discuss competency-based education at Sanborn Regional High School in New Hampshire.

Competency-Based Learning Adoption Across the Country

Districts around the country are successfully adopting competency-based learning practices. Below are some examples of districts innovating education through personalized, competency-based learning models.

  • The Big Picture Learning School utilizes an academic model predicated on student-directed, real-world learning. Students are paired with an academic advisor in collaboration with their parents to develop a personalized learning plan tailored to their skills, needs, and interests.
  • In Alaska, the rural Chugach School District in Alaska implemented a performance-based learning system over twenty years ago that still leverages thematic units, assessments, tools, and instructional approaches. It replaced its previous time-based education model and its grade levels with ten performance levels. As a result, the school formed the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC) model, a standards-based learning approach that was disengaged from student-seat time and enabled students to control their individualized learning plans. The Marzano Research Laboratory has since acquired RISC.
  • Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin is a nationally recognized leader in personalized education. In 2005, it transformed its education delivery system to meet students’ needs more efficiently.
  • In California, Lindsay Unified School District proudly states that it is “not just reforming education [but rather] completely dismantling the traditional time-based structures and building a learner-centered system of empowerment.”
  • Mesa County Valley School District 51 offers families an alternative, competency-based online education model that enables students to take self-paced control over their education.
  • In Pennsylvania, Montour School District leverages the Future Ready Schools® model, which fosters a personalized, student-centered learning environment and uses research-based digital learning strategies to create robust experiences for students to advance their education.
  • Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire leads with competency-based instruction and an aligned grading system that seeks to provide meaningful feedback to students and parents to help students progress toward significant academic concepts.
  • South Fayette School District in Pennsylvania exceeds the standards set forth by its home state. The curriculum focuses on varied learning experiences that enable students to explore unique ideas and interests through science, social studies, and STEAM experiences.
  • Wilder Schools in Idaho has constructed a personalized learning ecosystem based on the tenets of empowerment, critical thinking, innovation and creativity, student-ownership, voice and choice, mentor and facilitator, mastery, a project focus, and enjoyment.
  • Windsor Locks Public Schools in Connecticut is a competency-based school district that requires students to meet clearly defined standards in every subject at a high level. When a student requires additional time to support their achievement, the school assumes the responsibility to provide the student with the time or resources they need.

The list of schools and districts rethinking traditional approaches to academia grows annually, and as a result, parents and students now have more choices in the educational model that will best support the student’s development.

What Districts and Classrooms Need to Execute a Competency-Based Learning Model

If you are considering adapting your curriculum to leverage a competency-based learning model, you will need the following support systems in place to achieve success:

  • Documented and reasonable learning outcomes for each class
  • Robust student assessment forms
  • Strong relationships among teachers, students, and parents to collaborate on personalized lesson plans and learning objectives with students


With buy-in from all stakeholders and strong leadership, competency-based learning can be an effective way to reduce instructional inefficiency related to seat-time and increase pedagogical accuracy and student achievement. Perhaps most importantly, it allows students to take control of their education and master the skills needed to become competent and confident adults—truly the overall objective of every educational institution.

Learn More: Related PLS Classes Course for Teachers and District Administrators

Our partner PLS Classes offers the following self-paced graduate course, Responsive Teaching and Equitable Practices™ which explores strategies for creating a classroom environment designed to support self-directed student learning and teacher-student collaboration with maximum instructional flexibility. Participants become advocates for students, explore their role in educating families, and examine ways to form effective partnerships with students, teachers, and other stakeholders.

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