Competency-Based Education: Lessons Learned After a Decade of Transformation

It has been nearly a decade since Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire made the decision to shift to a competency-based system of learning. Having served as the high school principal during this transformation, I learned a great deal about what worked for us and what we would avoid if we had it to do over again.

Competency-based learning is sometimes referred to as mastery learning, proficiency-based learning, and even, to a lesser degree, standards-based learning. To be clear, we need a common understanding of what this model means for schools. Chris Sturgis (2015), provides context for this by identifying five tenets for competency based learning in schools today.

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, 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.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

A decade ago, my school district began the transition to a competency-based learning system so that it could realize its visions of “learning for all, whatever it takes.” The move did not happen overnight, and many would argue, we haven’t finished yet. Over the course of several years, our district engaged in professional development in several key areas to advance this work. Topics addressed included competency and learning progression curriculum development, quality performance assessment work, professional learning communities (PLCs), and work study practice skill development (also known as soft skills, employability skills, or 21st century skills). We changed our assessment and grading systems and report cards, and we developed school-wide student support structures such as daily flexible learning periods in each of our schools. Our transformation journey has been an open book that we have readily shared with other schools around the country — not because we believe our approach is right for every school, but because we know that others can learn from us.

This past year, colleague and elementary principal Jonathan Vander Els and I published a book on our journey which tells the story of transformation by principals, for principals. Jon and I closed our book by identifying the top five lessons learned as a result of our transformation work over the last decade. They are:

1. Include all stakeholders in the work

The transformation to competency-based learning should not be taken lightly, it is a monumental philosophical shift that impacts all areas of the system. As a school leader, you will need the buy-in and commitment from all of your school’s stakeholders, including teachers, students, parents, and community members, in order to make competency-based learning become an integral part of the lasting culture in your school.

2. Be a prophet of research

Unlike when my school started its journey a decade ago, there now exists a growing body of research to support a transformation to competency-based learning. Use this research to your advantage! As you start this journey, there will be many who will try to resort to a more traditional philosophy or practices because it is what they know or are comfortable with. Don’t let them challenge the work with their traditional views. Be a prophet of research, and bring research into the discussion whenever possible.

3. Don’t compromise the model

As a school leader, it could be very tempting to ignore (or consciously skip) some of the changes necessary to move to a competency-based learning model. Too often, schools make concessions and compromises with stakeholders in the community who are not ready to accept the competency-based learning philosophy. Be true to the model and stay the course, don’t let the model get watered down or misdirected by a compromise that doesn’t fit the school’s beliefs, but also recognize where some concessions might be made in the short-term to create buy-in.

4. Keep student learning at the center

The hallmark of the competency-based learning philosophy is increased student learning. Repeat phrases like “grades are about what students learn, not what they earn” and “learning for all, whatever it takes.” When teams get derailed from their work, remind them to focus on student, not adult issues. Above all, keep students at the center of all that your school does.

5. Start today

Perhaps my most important piece of advice to school leaders looking to do this work is to start somewhere, but start today. There is an ancient Chinese proverb that goes something like this: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The next best time is now.” No amount of planning will ever completely prepare your school to be successful in this journey, but you don’t have to have all of the answers before your school begins. Start your school’s journey today, even if you start slow. Doing something will be better than doing nothing. Your students deserve it. Your teachers deserve it. You deserve it.

Competency-based learning, when implemented effectively, addresses many of the equity shortfalls that a traditional education system has for various student groups. It levels the playing field because it focuses on the attainment of deep, meaningful student learning. It engages all students through personalization, choice, and voice. It looks at students’ growth while providing systems of supports for students to be successful. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it holds schools accountable to maintain a laser focus on learning for ALL students, whatever it takes.


Brian M. Stack is the 2017 New Hampshire Secondary School Principal of the Year. He is Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH and also serves as a member of the Nellie Mae Speaker Bureau and an expert for Understood.org. As an author for Solution Tree, Brian just coauthored a book with colleague Jon Vander Els entitled Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency Based Learning in PLCs at Work (2017). He lives with his wife Erica and his five children Brady, Cameron, Liam, Owen, and Zoey on the New Hampshire seacoast. You can follow Brian on Twitter @bstackbu or learn more about him by visiting his blog.

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