12 Onramps for Personalized and Competency-based Learning

Higher Ed & Post Sec, Learner Experience, Learning, Learning Design, Online & Blended, PreK-12

Your school, program, or college has probably seen improvement in learner access to technology in the last few years (although it may still be an EdTech mess of devices and apps). But you may still be looking for ways to achieve real personalization in path and pace. It turns out that developing competency-based models where learners progress based on demonstrated mastery is a lot harder than adding devices. 

As Julia Freeland Fisher recently noted, “Systems will likely get into trouble if they attempt to make just a few aspects of their models competency-based, while retaining an otherwise traditional structure.” Julia suggested four onramps–places to get started with personalized and competency-based learning and we’ve added a half a dozen more.

1. Teacher learning. Teachers often teach the way they were taught. Giving them a competency-based experience is a great place to start. Read the new Bloomboard report on micro-credentials to learn how to deliver bite-sized learning and recognize it with a digital badge.  


2. Low stakes space. After school and summer school are a great place to innovate–it’s how NewClassrooms (School of One) got it’s start in NYC. A recent American Youth Policy Forum report suggested that quality after school programs increasingly provide academically enriching experiences where students can demonstrate competencies that can apply towards credits in school.

3. Blended and adaptive learning. Use a lab or class rotation model to introduce adaptive reading and math software. It will provide an hour or two of personalized learning each week as well as valuable real time data. Students that use i-Ready from Curriculum Associates for 45 minutes or more per week grew 44% more than the average student in reading and 65% more in math. Launched in 2012, almost three million students (about 8% of U.S. enrollments) benefited from the Curriculum Associates’ adaptive assessment and instruction in 2015.

4. Credit recovery. Where blended learning started; this is a a great place to pinpoint and address gaps and, as a result, advance competency-based learning. Our report How To Successfully Scale Personalized Learning, produced in partnership with Fuel Education, confirmed that credit recovery remains a common entry point that can be the catalyst for scaling blended learning across schools and districts. The Boston Day and Evening Academy has been recognized as a pioneer in competency-based credit recovery.  Widely used solutions include Apex, Gradpoint from Pearson, and Edgenuity. (See 12 Reasons Every District Should Open a Flex School.)  

5. Alternative education. Small alternative high schools and dropout-recovery programs can be a great place to pilot competency-based and personalized learning strategies. As Julia notes, they’re designed to take on students with varying credit and mastery levels and meet students where they are, identify and fill gaps, accelerate progress, and graduate them on a flexible basis. These programs can even help credit-deficient students begin earning college credit (read about the Big Picture Learning pilot with College for America).


6. Supplemental online learning. Part time online learning (often called Course Access) expands offerings for students particularly electives and world languages. It may allow students to move at a flexible or individual pace. As Julia notes, in some states online course providers can now obtain seat-time waivers to avoid keeping students “on the clock.” A great example is New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy Charter School which bundles its content by competencies (rather than courses) and receives funding based on mastery rather than time.

7. Career and technical education. Although often overlooked in the CBE conversation, CTE pathways and internships are not only great job preparation for students, they can be a great working example of competency-based education for a community. The whole idea of “showing what you know” before moving on has long been a hallmark of CTE.  The NAFTrack Certification system combines school and work demonstrations of mastery. GPS Education Partners combines personalized learning and manufacturing work experiences into Next Generation Career Pathways (GPS intern shown below).


8. Academy. Launching a school-within-a-school is a great way to expand options while showcasing next generation learning. New Tech Network supports nearly 200 project-based schools, 90% are district schools and half of those are co-located with other schools. Almost all of the 667 NAF career academies are co-located. If the whole school isn’t ready to move, launch an academy. (Teachers at the original Napa New Tech High below.)


9. Two teacher pilots. An even more nimble solution than a full academy is encouraging small teacher teams to pilot innovations.

  • Denver Public Schools runs an incubator, Imaginarium (discussed here), where a new school team or two teachers with a good idea can gain design and financial support.
  • Summit Public Schools, the innovative Bay Area secondary network, is offering its personalized learning platform to middle school teacher teams nationwide through the Basecamp program (discussed here; Summit teacher team below).



10. World languages: Expanding access to world languages is a  great place to pilot online and competency-based learning (see Elevate and Empower) and simultaneously empower teachers with new roles as blended and competency-based learning coaches to departments outside of world language.


11. Grant opportunity. Use grant programs as an opportunity to mobilize a design process. Programs with great frameworks include NewSchools Catapult, NGLC regional funds, and XQ Super School. In New England, Nellie Mae Education Foundation supports student centered learning pilots (listen to this podcast) and the work of the New England Secondary School Consortium.


12. Curriculum redesign. Julia notes seeing more districts redesigning their school model and curriculum with competency-based approaches in mind. She suggests a “sandbox” approach to rethinking curriculum—that is, allow an autonomous team from the district to rethink a new curriculum from scratch that is not beholden to existing models, scope and sequence, or publisher content. (See Helping Chief Academic Officers Make The Shift From Managed Instruction To Personalized Learning.)

The foundation for a competency-based approach is a system of formative assessment and mastery tracking (see a survey of tools).  

Next Steps. It is challenging and controversial to convert an entire school system to a personalized and competency-based approach but you don’t have to do it all at once. These dozen entry points provide places to start with limited investment and risk. With a few working examples in place, it creates local reference points and field trip opportunities.

In addition to launching a few pilots, start a community conversation about what graduates should know and be able to do (see examples from Marion Ohio and Houston Texas). It will help shape a long term vision and build agreements about next steps.  

For more see:

Co-Authored with Karla Phillips, Policy Director for Competency Based Education at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Follow Karla on Twitter, @azkarla.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is author of Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and Learn Capital and serves on the boards of 4.0 Schools, eduInnovation, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners and Bloomboard. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.

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