New Designs for School
New Designs for School

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A look at the differences in purpose, driving forces, targeted population, and organizational scale between competency-based education in K-12 and higher ed.

This post originally appeared on CompetencyWorks on January 23, 2017.

This is the beginning of a four-part reflection on the relationship between competency-based education in institutions of higher education and K12. To distinguish between the two sectors, IHE-CBE and K12-CBE will be used. In this first article, I highlight how competency-based education in K12 and in IHE is the same and how it is different (while humming the Sesame Street song One of These Things is Not Like the Others).

At the highest level, the definitions of IHE-CBE and K12-CBE are essentially the same.

From Competency-Based Education Network: Competency-based education combines an intentional and transparent approach to curricular design with an academic model in which the time it takes to demonstrate competencies varies and the expectations about learning are held constant. Students acquire and demonstrate their knowledge and skills by engaging in learning exercises, activities, and experiences that align with clearly defined programmatic outcomes. Students receive proactive guidance and support from faculty and staff. Learners earn credentials by demonstrating mastery through multiple forms of assessment, often at a personalized pace.

From CompetencyWorks: Developed by 100 innovators in 2011, we use a five-part working definition to guide efforts to implement competency education:

  • 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; and
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

However, as one looks at the purpose, driving forces, targeted population, and organizational scale, significant differences start to appear. Although I may be in the minority, I believe that the differences are so important that they need to be understood as more different than the same. With discernment comes knowledge and knowledge-building. Over time, concepts and terminology will hopefully develop that allow us to talk about the differences as variation. Without language to discern, we risk confusion when everything is lumped into sameness.

CBE Differences quote


Competency education in higher education is generally focused on preparing students for specific industry and occupational skills that are defined by the industry. It is essentially strengthening the pipeline so that students have mastered the skills they really need to get a job as defined by industry.

In comparison, K12 is a process of broadening the horizon so that students are prepared for and have options as they make the transition into the world of college and careers. The K12 system should not be determining what options students have—that is called sorting. There is no reason to make sorting a public sector function—there is certainly enough force in the markets and in discriminatory practices that produce sorting and reduce options. Our job is to expand options for students.

The equity agenda, to challenge the idea that family income or color of skin determines our future, is the American dream. Our country is supposed to be a place where anyone can succeed—and our public education system is the key that opens that door. Thus students need the foundational skills, knowledge of how to apply these skills to new contexts, the habits of work (including learning how to learn) that will support them in any situation, a sense of their own aptitudes, and enough exposure that they have discovered worlds that inspire them.

Driving Forces

In K12, the driving force behind competency education is equity and personalization. If the traditional system is designed for sorting, then what type of system is needed for all students to succeed? (See What Is Competency Education for more discussion on this topic.)

In the world of higher education, there are many who focus on the quality of higher education in terms of helping faculty become more intentional and ensuring students are learning what is set out as the learning targets. However, a driving force in IHE is seeking ways to accelerate learning and reducing the cost for customers through program design or credentialing prior learning. When you watch the C-BEN video on CBE, note the terms that are similar, such as transparency and personalized, and those that are different, such as accelerated and cost.

Along the margins of the CBE world, there are always some who push performance-based funding, one of the clumsiest policies around. Strong incentives are overwhelmed by distortionary and fully anticipated consequences to manage who is in any program. The IHE sector has developed the capacity to think about business models and cost-effectiveness. Still driven by annual budgets, per pupil costs, and limited autonomy, K12 must first take the step toward being able to monitor cost-effectiveness before we move to the heavy-handed policies of performance-based funding and all the harmful incentives that will accompany it.

Who Is CBE For?

One of the big differences is that K12-CBE is going to be designed for little kiddies stretching to teens bursting into young adulthood. IHE focuses more on working adults, although some colleges and universities are focused on young adults transitioning in from high school. The needs of vulnerable young adults aged 18-28 with weak foundational skills, complicated lives, and family responsibilities have not yet received the attention they need in the world of competency-based education, although there are a few outstanding alternative school models that certainly can inform our work.

Although there are exceptions (such as the University of Maine – Presque Isle), most of the IHE-CBE are organized as programs within an IHE. In fact, there are several IHE that will offer one online program, let’s say in marketing, and another that is designed as a competency-based online program. In conversations, I’ve heard this explained that “some students are just better able to do a CBE programs than others.” Thus, IHE is segmenting their customer base and selling CBE programs to those they believe will be more successful.

In K12, that statement would be anathema. CBE should be a district model and a school model at a minimum. If it doesn’t work for all students, then it shouldn’t be considered a K12 reform. What we are understanding as we embrace a growth mindset and shake out the dangerous fixed mindset from our schools is that the job of schools is to help students build the habits of work and mindset, complemented by gradual release so that all students become independent, lifelong learners.

Length of the Continuum

K12 is designed as a continuum stretching across thirteen years. We’ve also created standards that identify a learning trajectory of what we expect students should be learning within each of those years.

However, we find that it is important to step back from this concept of grade levels and think about them as performance levels. Why? Because students do not all enter school with what the Common Core assumes they should have. Students develop and learn in different ways that may shape their learning over time. Students have different life experiences that may result in missing school, accessing additional resources outside of school, or taking advantage of robust learning experiences in their family and community. In fact, most students change schools at least once during these thirteen years (I wasn’t able to find the number for changing districts).

Students who enter a school at a performance level below their grade level may take longer unless there are specific learning plans put into place that will help to accelerate the process (more personalized support, more time during the day such as after school, or more time during the year such as summer school). Our job in K12 is to get students across the line of college and career readiness (i.e., with the skills for community college without remediation or higher and the set of higher order [soft skills in the world of employers] to succeed in the workplace). To always focus on grade levels keeps us locked in the traditional model of teaching curriculum, not students.

In IHE, the length of the continuum is shorter and will vary by the program. Given that many of the customers are working, programs are sometimes designed as part-time. With the recent focus on completion, IHE will likely control for the variation in prerequisite skills through admissions policies and requiring remediation, something that public education can only do with selective schools.

Instructional Delivery

Most of the programmatic IHE-CBE are designed as online programs (again, there are exceptions such as UMPI). In K12-CBE, we see online learning as an option that schools and teachers can use for the delivery of instruction that should serve to enhance students’ learning experiences. For example, online learning might support teachers in providing greater personalization for students so they are working within their zone of proximal development. Online learning can also provide more opportunities for practice and intensive feedback to students so they build fluency in the skill.


There are so many places that we should be looking across the sectors of K12 and IHE to learn from each other. I believe the world of K12 would benefit greatly from seeing how some of the IHE are thinking about creating digital transcripts designed to allow students to tell their story of who they are, what they have learned, and where they want to go. Similarly, IHE would benefit from thinking more deeply about how to help students build their habits of work and how to organize programs so that anyone would benefit from them, not just those with strong executive functioning.

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Chris Sturgis

​Chris Sturgis

Project Manager, CompetencyWorks

Chris Sturgis is the principal consultant at MetisNet, specializing in education, youth issues and community engagement. She is the project manager of, advancing K-12 competency-based education by ensuring policy development, cutting edge models and best practices are just a click away.