Show What You Know: A Landscape Analysis of Competency-Based Education

Educators are genuinely enthusiastic about new, competency-based approaches to learning – as opposed to a system based on how much time students spend in class – but significant obstacles may prevent competency-based education from taking hold in U.S. high schools in the near future.

Believing that competency-based education is one of several necessary steps required to rethink American high schools, XQ asked us to conduct a landscape analysis to find out what’s happening in the field. When the findings came back, XQ decided to release the report publicly to share what was learned and to stimulate a much-needed conversation about this important topic.

Today, XQ published the report authored by Getting Smart, which is entitled Show What You Know: A Landscape Analysis of Competency-Based Education (CBE). This rich resource features an overview of the current status of competency-based education in the U.S. that we developed for XQ, and reflections from XQ on some of the more complex transition issues. Our analysis is based on interviews with more than 50 experts and educators in K-12 schools, higher education, technology, and philanthropy; analyses of more than 40 publications and other source materials; site visits to dozens of schools; and input from numerous education research organizations.

In our research, we found that educators are genuinely enthusiastic about new, competency-based approaches to learning, and that more and more schools are measuring student success by competency, which can help students take responsibility for their own learning, experience deeper learning, and develop the habits of lifelong learners. We also learned about how new resources and tools, including blockchain technology and machine learning, could make the path to quality easier for educators.

However, significant challenges continue to impede widespread adoption of competency-based approaches and models. Barriers include inadequate support for teachers and students, a lack of sufficient tools and resources, and the need for more descriptive transcripts accepted by postsecondary institutions.

Perhaps the most pervasive barrier is that, in many schools and districts, the system remains stuck in conventional routines and definitions that have changed little in decades. Schools are also stuck with tools and resources designed for a more static system, and with college admissions requirements and state accountability systems that reinforce old expectations and make change feel risky to teachers, parents, high schools, and students themselves.

“Every student deserves a great high school education. And by that we mean one that engages them to become self-motivated learners, challenges them to develop complex analytical and social skills, prepares them with foundational knowledge, and inspires them to become lifelong learners. Young people will need all that, and more, to succeed in the jobs of the future and to contribute to civic life,” said Russlynn Ali, Chief Executive Officer of XQ. “The shift from time- to competency-based learning is one critical element of making sure that young people get what they need.”

“The multidimensional shift to competency-based learning requires new experiences, supports, and structures; new teaching roles and capabilities; new assessments and reports; and new funding models and policies,” said Tom Vander Ark, CEO at Getting Smart. “Shifting to demonstrated competence is inevitable and well underway in corporate learning and alternative higher education, but it is complex enough that it’s likely to be a generation-long process in K-12 education.”

We therefore urge the field as a whole to pursue work in the five overarching areas discussed in the report, while continuing to move forward with additional efforts directed at more specific impact opportunities. We also acknowledge that real progress will depend on an ambitious and fundamental rethinking of what graduates need to know and be able to do, what evidence will be used to demonstrate and assess their learning, and ultimately, how learning will be credentialed. Our research has strengthened our conviction that an effective, equitable CBE system must be built upon a new infrastructure of goals and requirements—thus calling upon us to rethink the high school credential itself.

This work marks a milestone in XQ and Getting Smart’s partnership in examining competency-based education as it evolves and gains momentum in U.S. schools. Both organizations are continuing to explore questions about the high school credential, and XQ recently released a policy guide: High School & the Future of Work: A Guide for State Policymakers.

We hope you will read the report, share it with your network, and follow along with us as we continue to develop and release new resources for CBE, and explore new ways to build momentum toward equitable CBE within our system.


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Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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