Competency-Based Education - Unit 1


Return to: ETAP 623 Fall 2019 (Zhang) | Brandon's Personal Page | CBE Unit 2 | CBE Unit 3

Learning Objectives

By the end of this unit, students will be able to

(1) define Competency-Based Education in the context of the primary or secondary school classroom.

(2) compare and contrast the structure of Competency-Based Education courses with courses using a traditional approach and reflect on the benefits and any potential drawbacks of each structure.

Lesson 1.1 - Reflecting on our Past Practices

Before defining Competency-Based Education formally (or at least as formally as we can), first reflect on either your past experience with deciding when for how long certain concepts would be taught (either on your own or with a group of colleagues) or your past training on how a curriculum should be structured. The more recent the experience, the better.

Lesson 1.1 Sample.png

Below is a sample pacing calendar currently used by a ninth-grade Algebra 1 teacher, which he uses to determine when certain concepts will be taught. For your information, the top of the page contains the Common Core State Standards that apply to the unit, and "LT" refers to the learning target addressed in that lesson. As you assess the document, briefly reflect on each of these three questions:

1. What information included in this document might be helpful for the teacher to reference as s/he is teaching?

2. Assuming this calendar is followed, how might a gifted student perform in this environment? How might a struggling student (or one who needs more scaffolded support to learn) perform in this environment?

3. What problems, if any, do you find with this calendar approach?

Respond in the Google Form here.

Lesson 1.2 - Traditional Education Structure, and Its Faults

The sample pacing calendar from Lesson 1.1 is an approach commonly used in the traditional classroom to organize the teacher's pacing, determine (at least roughly) when certain concepts will be taught, create a firm date for summative assessments, and states the learning objectives the students will be striving for each day. As long as the students are present and engaged, high level learning is certainly possible through this approach.

More specifically, this pacing guide highlights several essential features of the traditional "coverage-based" technique, geared toward teaching all essential learning standards to all students throughout a school year.


1. The curriculum is focused on a set of outcomes, that may or may not address the foundational skills necessary to achieve them.

2. The curriculum is time-based, meaning all students are learning the same skills at the same time, at the same pace, regardless of their success with the previous skills.

3. Students' learning is graded based on their completion and performance on tests, projects, or other assignments. These grades may not demonstrate what skills the students have mastered, and what skills the students must continue practicing.

4. The curriculum offers few opportunities for the students to apply their learning to other, real-world contexts. Students are expected to memorize the concepts and/or procedures to solve problems, and not demonstrate their learning in ways other than a test.


5. The structure ranks and sorts students based on their performance, creating inequality within the classroom. Regardless of whether or not the student learned the material, new material will be added in subsequent classes, potentially creating a snowball effect.

6. The structure emphasizes coverage of all concepts in the curriculum, and does not necessarily focus on mastering each learning objective.

The link here demonstrates these features in the pacing guide.

CHECK FOR UNDERSTANDING - Below is a link to a pacing guide for a kindergarten reading unit. Six portions of the document are marked with square brackets with a question number within it. (i.e. [Question 1]) Each of the marked locations highlight one of the six flaws of the traditional, "coverage-based" classroom. On the Google Form here, select the flaw that is best described by the marked section. Each flaw should be used exactly once, but it is possible that more than one flaw may apply to a given situation.

Here is the document:

REFLECTION - Let's be clear: the traditional, "coverage-based" system is far from perfect. At the same time, the system arguably has its perks, and this lesson is not meant to discredit how schools and teachers structure their curricula. For this brief reflection (200 words is plenty, but you may write more if you wish), critique the arguments made so far. Do you view the flaws listed here as valid, or can you make an argument that one or more of these "flaws" is unwarranted? Do you view one or more of these flaws to be unavoidable or desirable? Link

Lesson 1.3 - Features of Competency-Based Education

Classrooms that follow the competency-based model have several features in common. Recognize that some of these features may also appear in the traditional classroom, but may or may not be the focus during every lesson:


(1) Students advance to the next concept/grade level only once they have demonstrated competency.

(2) Learning targets are clear, measurable, and written in student-friendly language.

(3) Assessments are meaningful for the students and show all students' progress with the learning targets.

(4) Students receive timely, differentiated, and personalized feedback based on their needs.

(5) Students are taught to develop a growth mindset, understanding that their efforts will lead to achieving their competencies, and needing more support to achieve them is acceptable and appreciated.

Growth Mindset-Payne.png

(6) Learning targets emphasize both essential skills, and application of those skills to new contexts.

It is certainly true that every classroom strives to achieve these goals, as they are all signs of good teaching in general. However, Competency-Based Education focuses on every student achieving competency on every essential learning target throughout the school year. This focus ensures that no student is left behind, and all students can achieve high-level learning.

REFLECTION: In this lesson, it should be clear that the features of Competency-Based Education can be similar to features that already exist in the traditional classroom, only changing the focus from covering all required content to showing competency in all essential learning targets. Think about the classroom or school you work in. Which of these features would you say already exists in your classroom? How would an outside observer know that you and you school community focuses on them? Are there any of these features that may be lacking in your classroom or school? How could the focus be shifted to achieve these goals? Respond in the Google Form here.

Unit 1 Assessments

Once you have completed all reflections and formative assessments in this unit and feel comfortable, click the link to the Unit 1 Quiz. It is designed to assess your understanding of the topics in Unit 1, using multiple choice items and a constructed response question.

Unit 1 Quiz

After completing the quiz, self-assess your learning so far. You should reference the Standards-Based Grades in the Curriculum Map to determine your level of understanding.


Move on to: CBE Unit 2


Lopez, N., Patrick, S. and Sturgis, C. (2017). Quality and equity by design: Charting the course for the next phase of competency-based education. Vienna, VA: iNACOL.

Sturgis, C. and Casey, K. (2018). Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education. Vienna, VA: iNACOL.