By Tom Vander Ark and Carri Schneider

The shift from print to digital is a big deal, but in many ways the shift from cohorts to competency is the more profound transformation underway in education.

For more than one hundred years schools have grouped students by birthday, offered common instruction, and moved kids from grade-to-grade. Some got it, some didn’t. It was efficient in terms of resources and sorting the bright and compliant young people who were suited for higher education. We have reached the limits of batch processing kids through print-based schools.

The current system fails kids in two key ways:

  1. It holds back students who could be excelling.
  2. It moves on students who aren’t ready.

Now that the idea economy demands a higher level of preparation of all students, we can no longer pass students along that haven’t mastered critical skills. We need to ask them to show what they know and give them the time and resources they need to succeed. For the students whose potential is stifled in cohort model, we must create opportunities for them to soar when they demonstrate readiness.

Some schools have operated this way for decades, but manually creating personalized pathways for every student is hard work. Fortunately the shift to digital makes it far easier to manage competency-based environments

Today, Digital Learning Now! (DLN) released “The Shift From Cohorts to Competency,” a DLNSmart Series paper that outlines:

  • 10 capabilities of competency-based systems;
  • Frequently asked questions about competency education; and
  • 10 design choices to guide development.

The DLN Smart Series illuminates critical implementation topics at the intersection of the shift to personal digital learning and Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The most basic and profound shifts that will occur in this decade are the policies and practices that guide student progress through schools.

Co-author Chris Sturgis manages the CompetencyWorks site and online community sponsored in part by Nellie Mae Education Foundation and iNACOL, leading advocates of competency-based education.

When students get the time and attention they need, replacing social promotion with “show what you know” promotion, it will result in a higher percentage of students graduating college and career ready.

In a world where getting a driver’s license requires passing a test and a driving demonstration – a competency-based system utilizing multiple forms of assessment — and professional certifications for doctors, accountants, and lawyers who rely on test-based demonstrations of competence, it’s time that we create better alignment between K-12 education and college and career readiness by shifting from cohorts to competency.

“The Shift from Cohorts to Competency” and the other DLN Smart Series papers and infographics are available for download at


Digital Learning Now! is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner. This blog first appeared on EdWeek.


  1. Thanks for the introduction to the DLN paper and your well written summary of the shortcomings or our factory model batch processing system. As I struggle to drive change in a district of 29,000 I am encouraged by the pitch of conversations around personalization, teacher by teacher we are approaching a tipping point of awareness. As we all know admitting you have a problem is the first step towards recovery.

  2. Thanks for the kind words and wise insights Greg. It’s encouraging for us to hear that our work can help the system to reach that “tipping point of awareness.” Keep up the good work, and let us know how we can continue to help.

  3. […] The fourth paper Shift from Cohorts to Competency was co-authored by Chris Sturgis of CompetencyWorks. The paper and “Show What You Know” Beats Batch Processing infographic explore how competency education has the potential to connect learning to students’ passions and interests, drawing them toward higher- order thinking and, therefore, deeper learning. The authors contend that while technology is not a necessary component of competency education per se, advances in edtech have made it possible to bring competency education to scale through an ever-expanding set of tools that can personalize and customize learning.  For more of our thoughts on competency-based learning, see “From Batch Print to Show What You Know.” […]


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