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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

Teacher Preparation

November 2017


What resources are available to help practitioners initially develop and grow/deepen their skills to implement competency-based educational practices in their classrooms?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for practical resources on competency-based educational practices. For details on the databases and sources, keywords and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. We have not evaluated the quality of references and resources provided in this response, but offer this list to you for your information only.

Research References

American Institutes for Research. (2017). CBE 360 survey toolkit. Washington, DC: Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Retrieved from

From the website: “Competency-based education allows students to master skills and knowledge at their own pace, and has been gaining popularity nationwide as teachers seek ways to ensure that every student is well prepared for college and career. The CBE 360 Survey Toolkit, developed by American Institutes for Research (AIR), uses surveys from a recent AIR CBE study to provide a comprehensive picture of CBE implementation in six research-based core areas: learning targets, measurement of learning, instructional approaches and supports, assessment of learning, pacing and progression, and when and where learning takes place.

The CBE 360 Survey Toolkit includes:

  • CBE Survey User Guide: A user-friendly guide on administering or adapting the surveys, exploring results, and interpreting and using your findings.
  • Toolkit Checklist: A checklist to confirm that you’ve taken all five steps necessary to prepare for survey administration.
  • Student CBE Experiences (SCE) Survey: A 20-minute survey designed for middle or high school students that includes questions regarding CBE-related experiences in school.
  • Teacher CBE Practices (TCP) Survey: A 20-minute survey designed for academic teaching staff that includes questions on CBE-related practices across all of their courses, schoolwide policies and practices, and more in-depth questions about CBE-related practices in one selected course.
  • Surveys Construct Map: A map specifying which survey items and item sets are aligned with each of the six CBE feature areas to help customize surveys for local needs.
  • Consent Guidance and Sample Parent/Guardian Consent Form: Example consent forms that can be modified to align with your district or school’s requirements.
  • Survey Administration Instructions: Guidelines to help you plan for survey administration including instructions and scripts to ensure a consistent and efficient administration process.
  • Technical Appendix: A resource that provides the technical properties for the surveys and details regarding survey development and testing.”

Brown, J., Minturn, M., & Kingham, C. (2016). Assessments and grading for teachers in K-12 competency-based systems [Webinar]. Vienna, VA: International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL). Retrieved from

From the website: “Schools and districts are making the transition to competency-based education to create a more equitable system that gives all students the skills they need for postsecondary life. Competency-based systems of assessment provide rich, ongoing opportunities for students to develop a growth mindset.

This webinar provides answers to questions such as: How do teachers design and grade assessments in competency-based systems? How do schools provide students a consistent experience of grades both inside and across classrooms? How do they ensure that students develop genuine mastery of competencies prior to moving on to the next level of learning?

View this archived webinar to hear from educators in New York City’s Mastery Collaborative for ways to design assessments and enhance grading practices for competency-based learning. Learn how these schools design the grading and assessment experience to teach rigorous competencies while simultaneously developing a positive learning identity in their students. Explore examples of assessments, techniques for equitable grading practice, and best practices for communicating grading systems to students and families. Participants will come away with a deeper awareness of how grading and assessment can enrich and motivate deeper learning.”

Center for Education Leadership. (2010). Tools developed in Oregon proficiency project phase 1 at AIS Woodburn. Seattle, WA: University of Washington. Retrieved from

From the website: “While implementing proficiency-based education during the 2009-10 school year, the Academy of International Studies (AIS) in Woodburn, Oregon, developed a lot of tools along the way to help with various aspects of building the capacity of staff to adapt this work to their classrooms. Because there was an intensive focus on instructional coaching in the Language Arts classroom of one teacher, there are a number of tools specific to writing and Language Arts. The AIS principal also received intensive instructional leadership coaching and a number of tools were developed in that aspect of the work.

The tools also reflect the collaborative efforts of the Language Arts Department teachers and other staff to reach shared understanding and agreement about how to implement the new practices so that students would have consistent learning experiences across the department and school.

The tools are organized in sections according to which AIS staff individuals or groups created them and should be useful to anyone interested in pursuing this work, to see by role where a teacher, principal, department, professional learning community (PLC) or whole school staff might start.”

Education Elements & Digital Promise. (2017). Competency-based education toolkit. Washington, DC: Digital Promise. Retrieved from

From the website: “This Competency-Based Education (CBE) Toolkit was born out of the work of Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools and features lessons learned by ten districts from across the country. Lessons are mapped to an implementation framework and include the following topics:

  • Stakeholder engagement
  • Curriculum and instruction
  • Standards and assessment,
  • Infrastructure
  • Staffing and scheduling

District leaders, school leaders, teachers, and anyone interested in a competency-based education can learn from these ten exemplar districts and put their advice into practice. The toolkit is available in a well-organized, online format. Note that users must provide their organization name and state to download this free resource.”

Great Schools Partnership. (2017). Proficiency-based learning simplified. Portland, ME: Author. Retrieved from

From the website: “The Great Schools Partnership created Proficiency-Based Learning Simplified to help schools develop efficient standards-based systems that will prepare all students for success in the colleges, careers, and communities of the 21st century. For this reason, our model is focused on prioritizing and assessing the most vitally important knowledge and skills, while also balancing these high academic expectations with the need for flexibility, responsiveness, and creativity in the classroom.

Throughout this website, school leaders and teachers will find detailed guidance on developing a proficiency-based system. We have strived to keep our guidance concise and practical, focusing only on the most essential policies, processes, and practices. In addition, we see our model as an iterative process, and we intend to revise, improve, and expand our resources over time

From the Table of Contents: “Assessment + Verification
In this section, district and school leaders will find guidance on what to assess, how to assess it, and how to verify and report student proficiency in relation to standards.

  • Verifying Proficiency: Graduation Standards
  • Verifying Proficiency: Performance Indicators
  • Verifying Proficiency: Scoring Criteria
  • Assessment Pathways Simplified
  • Designing and Assessing Homework

Grading + Reporting
In this section, school leaders and teachers will find detailed guidance on developing a proficiency-based grading and reporting system.

  • Designing a Grading System
  • Grading Principles and Guidelines
  • Communicating the Grading System
  • Selecting an Online Grading and Reporting System
  • Habits of Work Grading and Reporting
  • Casco Bay High School Habits of Work Grading and Reporting
  • KIPP and Riverdale’s Seven Highly Predictive Strengths
  • Academic Recognition and Latin Honors
  • Exemplar High School Transcript
  • Exemplar High School Profile”

Iowa Department of Education. (2016). Iowa Department of Education guidelines for PK-12 competency-based pathways. Des Moines, IA: Author. Retrieved from

From the Introduction: “This document provides guidelines for developing competency-based pathways in Iowa districts and schools and outlines waiver requirements and procedures. Competency-based pathways provide ways to validate learning of standards that occurs outside the structure of the traditional school and offer flexibility for schools to engage students in learning that moves beyond the traditional constraints of seat time and divisions among content areas. These pathways provide opportunities for students to advance through content or earn credit toward high school graduation regardless of age or amount of time in the classroom, online, or in a setting off campus. They will enable districts and schools to provide student-centered, personalized learning systems through which students of all ages develop both ownership and control of their own learning. Educators and students will be better able to connect learning to students’ interests. Provided are: (1) Principles, (2) Definitions and Explanations; (3) License and Endorsement; (4) Examples; (5) Student Access; (6) District Policy; (7) Resources; and (8) State Contact.”

Murphy, M., Redding, S., & Twyman, J. S. (Eds.). (2016). Handbook on personalized learning for states, districts, and schools. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University, Center on Innovations in Learning. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The ‘Handbook on Innovations in Learning,’ published in 2014, responded to a call by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to ‘leverage the innovation and ingenuity this nation is known for to create programs and projects that every school can implement to succeed.’ In December 2015, passage of the ‘Every Student Succeeds Act’ (ESSA) presented new opportunities and greater flexibility in efforts to personalize learning for all children. This ‘Handbook on Personalized Learning for States, Districts, and Schools’ provides insight and guidance on maximizing that new flexibility. This volume suggests how teachers can enhance personalized learning by cultivating relationships with students and their families to better understand a child’s learning and motivation. Personalized learning also encourages the development of students’ metacognitive, social, and emotional competencies, thereby fostering students’ self-direction in their own education, one aimed at mastery of knowledge and skills and readiness for career and college. Chapters address topics across the landscape of personalized learning, including co-designing instruction and learning pathways with students; variation in the time, place, and pace of learning, including flipped and blended classrooms; and using technology to manage and analyze the learning process. The chapters include Action Principles to guide states, districts, and schools in personalizing learning. The ‘Handbook’ is presented in five parts. Part 1: Personal Competencies as Propellants of Learning, contains the following: (1) Competencies and Personalized Learning (Sam Redding); (2) Converging Qualities of Personal Competencies (T. V. Joe Layng); and (3) Proceed with Caution: Measuring that ‘Something Other’ in Students (Allison Crean Davis). Part 2: Students at the Center of Personalized Learning, contains: (1) Co-designing Instruction with Students (Melinda S. Sota); (2) Flipped Learning as a Path to Personalization (Melinda S. Sota); (3) Empowering Students as Partners in Learning (Kathleen Dempsey, Andrea D. Beesley, Tedra Fazendeiro Clark, and Anne Tweed; and (4) Homeschooling: The Ultimate Personalized Environment (William Jeynes). Part 3: Teaching and Technology in Support of Personalized Learning, contains: (1) Personalizing Curriculum: Curriculum Curation and Creation (Karen L. Mahon); (2) Choose Your Level: Using Games and Gamification to Create Personalized Instruction (Karl M. Kapp); (3) Personalizing Learning through Precision Measurement (Janet S. Twyman); and (4) Using Learning Analytics in Personalized Learning (Ryan Baker). Part 4: The Personalized Learning Community: Teachers, Students, and Families, contains: (1) Preparing Educators to Engage Parents and Families (Erin McNamara Horvat); (2) Relationships in Personalized Learning: Teacher, Student, and Family (Patricia A. Edwards); (3) Teacher-Student Relationships and Personalized Learning: Implications of Person and Contextual Variables (Ronald D. Taylor and Azeb Gebre); and (4) Personalizing Professional Development for Teachers (Catherine C. Schifter). Part 5: Descriptive Studies of Specific Instructional Applications, includes: (1) Using Universal Design for Learning to Personalize an Evidence-Based Practice for Students with Disabilities (Sara Cothren Cook, Kavita Rao, and Brian G. Cook); (2) Next-Generation Teachers in Linguistically Diverse Classrooms (Tamara Sniad); (3) On Personalized Learning in the Context of the Common Core Literacy Standards: A Sociocultural Perspective (Frank J. Sullivan, Jr.); and (4) Social Studies and Personalized Learning: Emerging Promising Practices From the Field (Christine Woyshner). A section about the authors is included. Individual chapters contain references.”

Ryan, S., & Cox, J. D. (2016). Guide to competency-based learning survey for students. Washington, DC: Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Many states are moving away from approaches that base student advancement on credits and ‘seat time’ toward competency-based learning approaches that provide schools with the flexibility to link a student's advancement to mastery of content. Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands, in partnership with the Northeast College and Career Readiness Research Alliance, has developed a new survey—the Competency-based Learning Survey for Students—to help high schools and school districts collect data on student experiences with competency-based learning. Policymakers and practitioners need this information to improve implementation of and communication about competency-based learning with students. The survey is designed to be administered to students attending high schools in which competency-based learning is being implemented. It collects information on students’ beliefs about, exposure to, and understanding of key elements of competency-based learning. These elements include instructional practices that allow students to progress through demonstration of mastery, receive personalized instruction and learning opportunities, demonstrate mastery through flexible assessment, and develop specific skills and dispositions that may be especially critical under competency-based learning. ‘Developing the Survey’ and ‘Example Figures and Tables’ are appended.”

Shubilla, L., & Sturgis, C. (2012). The learning edge: Supporting student success in a competency-based learning environment. CompetencyWorks issue brief. Vienna, VA: International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “State by state, our country is revamping our education system to ensure that each and every one of our young people is college and career ready. To ensure high-quality competency education, in 2011 one hundred innovators created a working definition to guide the field. This paper delves into the fourth element of the definition: ‘Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.’ Through a series of interviews and site visits, an understanding of how support in a competency-based school differs from traditional approaches emerged. Learning in a competency-based environment means pushing students and adults to the edge of their comfort zone and competence—the learning edge. Common themes that were drawn from the wide variety of ways schools support students became the basis for the design principles introduced in this report. The aim of this paper is to provide ideas and guidance so that innovators in competency education can put into place powerful systems of supports for students in order to eradicate, not replicate, the inequities and variability in quality and outcomes that exist in our current system. This paper is an initial exploration into what it means to provide support for the individual learning needs of students. It is designed to generate reflection, analysis, and feedback. Contains endnotes and an about the authors section.”

Steele, J. L., Lewis, M. W., Santibañez, L., Faxon-Mills, S., Rudnick, M., Stecher, B. M., & Hamilton, L. S. (2014). Competency-based education in three pilot programs: Examining implementation and outcomes. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In 2011, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation created the Project Mastery grant program to support competency-based education initiatives in large school systems that serve a high proportion of disadvantaged youth. Competency-based education meets students where they are academically, provides students with opportunities for choice, and awards credit for evidence of learning, not for the time students spend studying a subject. The Foundation asked RAND to evaluate these efforts in terms of implementation, students’ experiences, and student performance. This report presents final results from that evaluation, offering an overview of competency-based education and the Project Mastery grant projects and describing the implementation of competency-based educational features under each project. The report concludes with six lessons for policy, partnerships, and practice.”

Stewart, A. (2014, January 3). Getting started and scaling competency-based education [Blog post]. CompetencyWorks. Retrieved from

From the Introduction: Iowa is a state no longer content with the status quo perpetuated by an antiquated educational system. Recent legislation and the work of an appointed state task force comprised of diverse stakeholders have unlocked the potential in proficiency-based learning for Iowa’s students. Inspired by the opportunity to change the nature of learning, ten school districts have joined the Iowa Department of Education and representatives from higher education and Area Education Agencies (AEAs) to engage in collaborative learning, to implement competency-based education (CBE) pathways in their districts, and to develop a state framework for CBE implementation.

As we build capacity in understanding CBE in our district and throughout the state, I am often approached with questions about how to get started or how to scale and sustain the work. I usually respond by asking how many days or hours the person has to engage in that conversation. We laugh, but nothing is further from the truth. The atomistic behaviorism that compels Westernized thinking is a limit to understanding CBE as a transformative systems change. Russ Ackoff believed that if we optimize the performance of parts of a system, we suboptimize the system as a whole. Peter Senge agrees that the leverage is in optimizing the interdependencies of a system. With CBE, the limits to growth are microcosmic and macrocosmic, which make them particularly difficult to recognize, map, and mitigate. As such, it is necessary to both take a balcony view and to roll up our sleeves for work in the trenches as Iowa embraces competency-based pathways.

Question 1: What do people who are new to competency-based education need to know or do?
Question 2: What are the next steps for districts that have already engaged in the work of CBE? How do we help take what we are doing to scale?
Question 3: What are the five most important ‘competencies’ that someone working to transform their state, district, or school need to have?”

Truong, N. (2017). Next generation learning models for English Language Learners. Vienna, VA: International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). Retrieved from

From the Introduction: “The purpose of this paper is to highlight the promising practices and trends in personalized learning and competency-based education for English language learner (ELL) students. This paper shares case studies and examples from schools and programs that are currently creating personalized, competency-based learning environments for ELL students.

This paper is designed for practitioners, including educators and education leaders, who want to advance next generation learning models to reach every student, and examine promising practices and considerations on designing ideal learning environments for ELL success.

The case studies in this paper represent promising practices in the field using personalized, competency-based learning specifically for ELL students. Case studies in the report include: ”

  • International High Schools
  • Distinctive Schools
  • UCLA Project ExcEL Schools
  • Lindsay Unified School District
  • Westminster Public Schools
  • Cesar Chavez Multicultural Academic Center”

Wolfe, R. E. (2012). Aligning competencies to rigorous standards for off-track youth: A case study of Boston Day and Evening Academy. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “For over 17 years, Boston Day and Evening Academy has served a population of young people often left behind: those who are off track to high school graduation or who have dropped out altogether. Through its competency-based approach, BDEA has tackled one of the toughest education conundrums of our time: how to recover low-skilled students two or more years off track to graduation, provide them a rich and rigorous education aligned with the Common Core State Standards, and graduate them quickly and college ready. This report uses BDEA as a model to describe the process of aligning competency-based pathways for off-track youth with rigorous standards. It details how BDEA designs its competencies for struggling students. In addition to a narrative of the process, the brief contains a glossary of terms and numerous examples, tools, and resources to assist educators tackling this work for their schools.”

Wolfe, R. E., & Poon, J. D. (2015). Educator competencies for personalized, learner-centered teaching. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Personalized learning is gaining momentum across the nation, which means the role of teachers and the skillsets they need is evolving. To address this need, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and Jobs for the Future (JFF) released this resource to outline the unique competencies educators need in order to create and thrive in effective personalized learning environments.

The Educator Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Teaching build on and push beyond the best existing teaching competencies and standards to capture what educators need in order to create and thrive in personalized, learner-centered systems. The competencies are organized into four domains.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

Center for Educational Leadership –

From the website: “At the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL), we believe that all students can achieve at high levels. We know that the achievement gap can and must be closed—it’s a matter of equity—and we have identified what it will take for every student to succeed. The secret? A combination of instructional quality and teacher support from district and school leadership.

We are nationally recognized experts, with proven results. In school districts across the nation, CEL educators and trainings have helped close the achievement gap by putting knowledge and skills that improve instructional effectiveness into the hands of classroom teachers. We work with the entire system, including the district office, the school level and the classroom, to ensure everyone is working as a team to improve teaching effectiveness.”

College & Career Readiness & Success Center –

From the website: “The College and Career Readiness and Success Center (CCRS Center) is dedicated to ensuring all students graduate high school ready for college and career success. The mission of the CCRS Center is to serve Regional Comprehensive Centers in building the capacity of states to effectively implement initiatives for college and career readiness and success. Through technical assistance delivery and supporting resources, the CCRS Center provides customized support that facilitates the continuous design, implementation, and improvement of college and career readiness priorities.”

CompetencyWorks –

From the website: “Why Competency Education? The time for competency education has come. It is vitally important for our country to move away from the restrictions of a time-based system. The reasons are many:

  • To ensure that all students succeed in building Common Core skills;
  • To provide greater flexibility for students that would otherwise not graduate from high school because they have to work or care for their families;
  • To take advantage of the extraordinary technological advances in online learning.”

International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) –

From the website: “The mission of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) is to catalyze the transformation of K-12 education policy and practice to advance powerful, personalized, learner-centered experiences through competency-based, blended and online learning.”

Iowa Competency-based Education Collaborative –

From the website: “In 2012 Senate File 2284 approved competency-based education (CBE). In 2013 House File 215 provided $100,000 to be used as grants to districts/schools participating in a collaborative effort toward CBE pathways for their students and a framework toward statewide implementation. The Iowa CBE Collaborative will engage in collaborative inquiry to investigate, develop, and implement competency-based educational pathways for their students and create a framework to guide the statewide implementation of CBE.”

Maine Cohort for Customized Learning –

From the website: “The Maine Cohort for Customized Learning (MCCL) is a coalition of school systems, organizations, and individuals committed to supporting proficiency-based, customized learning systems. There are currently over 20 school/system members from Maine & New Hampshire along with a regional organization of 17 school systems in northern Maine (Northern Maine Education Collaborative).”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Iowa competency-based

  • New Hampshire competency-based

  • Competency based learning barriers/facilitators + Descriptor: “competency based learning”

  • Competency based learning implementation + Descriptor: “competency based learning”

  • Kentucky competency-based

  • Maine competency-based

  • Oregon competency-based

  • Competency based learning professional development

  • Descriptor: “competency based learning”

  • Competency-based education

  • Competency-based learning

  • standards-based learning

  • mastery-based learning

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were include in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Region) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.