What is Competency-Based Education?

The Office of Governor Fallin received a grant from the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices in 2015 to study Oklahoma policies concerning competency-based education and its potential for students in Oklahoma. A leadership council comprising a wide variety of educators, parents and professionals convened to implement the grant, and as one of their first tasks the council sought to understand competency-based education. After studying definitions from all over the country, the Governor’s Leadership Council on Competency-Based Education defined it like this:

Competency-Based Education (or mastery learning) allows students to progress through a class(es) or course(s) of study to demonstrate mastery of knowledge and skills regardless of time, place or pace of learning. This model moves students away from the current time-based system to a mastery-based system allowing for more personalized and differentiated learning experiences (2016).

For the purposes of this guide, we used the Oklahoma definition. However, here are three more definitions we have found instructive.

The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices explained CBE in this way (emphasis added):

In the traditional model of education, student advancement is closely tied to time spent in a classroom where all students are typically taught as a group and expected to move ahead at more or less the same pace. In contrast, a model based on CBE starts by assessing what a student knows and then allows that student to advance at a pace that reflects his or her knowledge and skills. In the process, CBE encourages student success by providing targeted learning support, thereby creating a more personalized educational experience (Laine, R. et. al., 2015).

Similarly, in their book Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools (2015), Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker define competency-based learning as:

“the idea that students must demonstrate mastery of a given subject…before moving on to the next one. Students don’t move on from a concept based on the average pace of the class or within a preset, fixed amount of time” (Horn & Staker, 2015, p. 9).

In her paper, “Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders” (2015), Chris Sturgis of CompetencyWorks defines competency education as having five parts:

The five-part working definition of competency education describes the elements that need to be put into place to re-engineer the education system to reliably produce student learning:

Students advance upon demonstrated mastery;

Competencies include explicit, measurable and transferable learning objectives that empower students;

Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students;

Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; and

Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions (Sturgis, 2015, p. 8).
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