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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

November 2019


What research is available on school finance policies for competency-based education?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies, and policy overviews on school finance policies for competency-based education. 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. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Association for Career and Technical Education. (2016). State policies impacting CTE: 2016 year in review. Alexandria, VA: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In 2016, 42 states carried out a total of 139 policy actions relevant to CTE, including laws, executive orders, board of education actions, budget provisions and ballot initiatives. This represents an increase over 2015 activity. Several states passed packages of legislation impacting multiple elements of CTE programming, such as ‘Virginia,’ ‘California,’ ‘Indiana’ and ‘Idaho,’ while ‘Iowa’ took a deep dive into redesigning secondary CTE and career development. The governors in several of these states had previously signaled that CTE would be a priority in 2016 in their state of the state addresses, including Gov. C.L. ‘Butch’ Otter of ‘Idaho’ and Gov. Terry McAuliffe of ‘Virginia’, which helped provide momentum for such reforms. Some key takeaways include: (1) In 2016, funding continued its streak as the top category of state CTE policies for the fourth year in a row; (2) Twenty-eight states took action to financially support CTE activities this past year, including new sources of funding, redirected funds, scholarships and incentives; (3) New grant programs supporting CTE were established in several states, including California and Massachusetts; (4) Oregon created the College and Career Readiness Fund, which calls on the legislature to allocate $800 per high school student each year for CTE programs as well as dual credit and dropout prevention; (5) Utah started a fund to develop programs of study with industry; (6) In addition, the prior year’s cuts to CTE in Arizona were restored; and (7) The second most popular category is policy related to industry partnerships and work-based learning, with 26 states working in this area by supporting or incentivizing collaboration between industry and education and work-based learning opportunities. Also noteworthy are policies related to dual and concurrent enrollment, articulation and early college (21 states), as well as policies supporting the attainment of industry-recognized credentials (20 states).”

Brodersen, R. M., Yanoski, D., Mason, K., Apthorp, H., & Piscatelli, J. (2017). Overview of selected state policies and supports related to K-12 competency-based education (REL 2017-249). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Central. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Competency-based education—also known as proficiency-based, mastery-based, and performance-based education—has received increased attention in recent years as an education approach that may help ensure that students graduate from high school with the knowledge and skills necessary for college and their careers. In competency-based education, students must demonstrate mastery of course content to be promoted to the next class or grade, rather than spending a required number of hours in a class and meeting minimum course requirements to earn course credit. The approach helps guarantee that students attain competency in course content, with students allowed to take as much or as little time as they need to achieve such competency. Many states, including those in the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Central Region, have revised or are considering revising their policies to align more with competency-based education and other innovative education practices (National Governors Association, 2012). Education leaders in the REL Central Region are interested in learning about policies that affect implementation of competency-based education by understanding policies already in place in their state and learning about the policies of states further ahead in implementation. To help meet this need, this report summarizes the laws and regulations of the seven states in the REL Central Region (Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming), as well as the policies of five states outside the region identified as being advanced in aligning their policies to support competency-based education (Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, and Oregon). This scan of state policies also categorizes the different types of supports these 12 states have provided to intentionally support competency-based education. State and district policymakers can use the information in this report to increase their understanding of the current laws and regulations in their state that may facilitate or hinder competency-based education and to learn about the policies and resources that other states have to support this education approach. State laws and regulations were classified into three broad policy categories, each with several subcategories and associated policy types: (1) Credit flexibility: credit requirements, assessment of student competency, and graduation requirements; (2) Progression flexibility: additional education time, accelerated curriculum, early high school credit, and early graduation; and (3) Individual learning options: online or blended learning; early college, dual, or concurrent enrollment; and experiential learning. Policies on credit flexibility can influence the flexibility by which educational experiences are applied toward graduation and whether it is necessary for students to have mastered course content before progressing. Progression flexibility policies can support or hinder the ability of students to progress through their coursework and classes at their own rate, while policies associated with individual learning options can influence the education opportunities available to students, particularly options that allow education to occur outside the traditional classroom. The study found that: (1) States vary in the extent to which and manner in which they allow flexibility in how students earn academic credits and qualify for high school graduation; (2) Advanced competency-based-education states have more progression flexibility policies in place than do Regional Educational Laboratory Central Region states; and (3) All states have policies that provide students individual learning options. Through examination of publicly available documents, the policy scan also categorized the different types of supports states provide to facilitate competency-based education. These included informational and technical assistance, support for competency-based-education collaboratives, and pilot and special program funding. Results indicated that one Regional Educational Laboratory Central Region state and all five advanced competency-based-education states provide support specifically intended to facilitate competency-based education.”

Chuong, C., & Mead, S. (2014). A policy playbook for personalized learning: Ideas for state and local policymakers. Sudbury, MA: Bellwether Education Partners. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This report is designed to help state and local policymakers identify the policy changes needed to expand access to quality personalized learning in their states and communities, and to give them the tools to make those changes. Each of the 15 policy ideas, or ‘plays,’ in this playbook provides background context on the challenges it is designed to address and the benefits it will produce; examples of places where similar policies have been implemented; and a discussion of the policy or implementation considerations that must be taken into account. Because of the wide variation in each state’s policy context, these plays offer ‘broad ideas, rather than detailed language,’ which policymakers can take as a starting point to customize the plays to their own state or district and its unique circumstances.”

The Foundation for Excellence in Education. (2017). Competency-based education and school finance. Tallahassee, FL: Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Competency-based education is an innovative education model which focuses on ensuring that students master content and skills. This stands in contrast to traditional education models that pass students onto new grades or courses after they have received a certain amount of instruction regardless of mastery. However, state funding for schools is based on the number of hours of instruction a student receives regardless of how much a student learns during that time. These seat-time rules create potential barriers to and disincentives for competency-based education. What would a state funding system look like that is not based on hours of instruction? To answer this question, the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd) examined funding of online and community-based courses. These nontraditional learning experiences by their very nature run counter to the notion that students need to be physically present with a teacher during the regular school day for a set number of hours of instruction. As such, states funding these nontraditional learning opportunities have developed approaches that provide important lessons for states seeking to align their funding systems with competency-based education. ExcelinEd conducted interviews to determine how leading states are funding nontraditional learning experiences and then hosted a workshop of national experts. This report summarizes the results of this research and offers recommendations for states.”

iNACOL. (2018). State funding strategies to support education innovation. Vienna, VA: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “To effectively plan, launch and scale high-quality personalized, competency-based learning models, most educators and school leaders require intentional, sustained capacity-building supports. Therefore, states are identifying sustainable funding strategies for statewide initiatives to build this capacity. Options include state funding for a network of competency-based education schools, professional learning communities or pilot programs. This issue brief offers state policy strategies and five action steps for funding innovation in K-12 education.”

Miller, L., Just, M., & Cho, J. (2016). Low-stakes completion-based funding: A new approach to funding competency-based education. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Center for Innovation in Education. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “For the past three years, the lead author of this report has been studying the costs of personalized and blended learning, the policy landscape of online charter schools, and the potential of school finance to act as a lever for personalized learning at scale. In most cases, he found that finance models, resource allocation formulas, and school spending patterns showed remarkable resemblances to those established in more traditional school systems. However, the completion-based funding model was a notable exception that embodied a fresh take on school funding. While many states did not view online charter schools as an area for innovation within existing charter school regulations, the state of New Hampshire leapt into uncharted state policy and experimented with new pathways towards increasing student success. We are pleased to have had the chance to study New Hampshire’s unique funding system and have given it the name of low-stakes completion-based funding. We now share this report with state and school leaders who seek new possibilities for financing student learning in their virtual school sectors.”

Patrick, S., Myers, J., Silverstein, J., Brown, A., & Watson, J. (2015). Performance-based funding & online learning: Maximizing resources for student success. Vienna, VA: International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “There is a new conversation taking place in public education on creating systemic incentives through school finance to encourage schools to innovate and be rewarded for positive student outcomes and performance. What if education funding was not based on seat-time, but on rewarding student performance? Performance-based funding is a term that captures this new concept. Performance-based funding means that funding is tied to an outcome-a policy outcome. In higher education, institutions seek outcomes tied to degree completion. In K-12 education, the performance-based funding outcomes have historically been tied to course completion (as the outcome). As students successfully develop competencies and complete courses, they would trigger payment and performance-based funding incentives. It is important to protect quality and ensure student performance outcomes are validated through independent assessments and/or end-of-course exams. As interest in online courses grows, many states are looking for guidance regarding costs, models and performance-based funding policies. The research in this report is focused on online learning to focus on the issues of equity and adequacy of funding in the context of performance-based funding models.”

Patrick, S., & Sturgis, C. (2011). Cracking the code: Synchronizing policy and practice for performance-based learning. Vienna, VA: International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Performance-based learning is one of the keys to cracking open the assumptions that undergird the current educational codes, structures, and practices. By finally moving beyond the traditions of a time-based system, greater customized educational services can flourish, preparing more and more students for college and careers. This proposed policy framework, designed to expedite state policy development in performance-based learning, may be applied to all next generation learning. Building upon the 2011 Competency-Based Learning Summit convened by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), this discussion explores how state policy can loosen the regulatory environment that is handcuffing administrators and educators who are ready to move toward student-centered, competency-based models of learning. Transitioning to a competency-based system requires deep analysis and wide-reaching creativity. Thus, chief state school officers will want to work collaboratively, drawing on insights and innovations from other states in order to expedite the process of constructing a set of policies that promote innovation and breakthrough strategies, rather than the traditional compliance model.”

Patrick, S., Worthen, M., Frost, D., & Gentz, S. (2016). Promising state policies for personalized learning. Vienna, VA: International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Students, teachers, and school leaders are seeking flexibility and supports to enable powerful, personalized learning experiences both inside and outside of the traditional classroom. In personalized learning, instruction is tailored to each student’s strengths, needs, and interests—including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when, and where they learn—to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible. This is in contrast to the one-size-fits-all approach of the traditional K-12 education model, in which learning is not differentiated and students are expected to progress through the same curriculum at the same pace. This report is designed for policymakers who want to advance policies that support personalized learning in their states. This report provides examples of promising state policies to scale and enable personalized learning. The intent is to inform and empower the field with examples from states creating supportive policy environments.”

Silvernail, D. L. (2013). Preliminary implementation of Maine’s proficiency-based diploma program. Portland, ME: University of Southern Maine. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs of the Maine Legislature requested that the Maine Education Policy Research Institute (MEPRI) undertake a study designed to compile data on the preliminary development, costs, and impacts of standards-based school programs and to report back to the committee in 2013 on the progress Maine schools and school districts were making in transitioning to the new education system. To that end, MEPRI researchers and analysts have conducted a study of a select sample of Maine schools and school districts.”

Torres, A. S., Brett, J., & Cox, J. (2015). Competency-based learning: Definitions, policies, and implementation. Waltham, MA: Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The purpose of this study was to examine how competency-based learning (CBL) is defined across states in the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands region and gain insight into barriers and facilitators to implementation of this reform. Many states in the region have started to consider and implement competency-based learning as a secondary school reform to increase graduation rates and ensure that students have the skills and knowledge for postsecondary success. Under competency-based approaches, students demonstrate mastery of a defined set of standards or competencies to earn credit toward graduation rather than completing credit requirements based on time spent in class. To master the learning standards or competencies, students are given support and additional time as needed. A review of state-level policies in each of the seven states in the region was conducted along with interviews with a sample of 20 administrators in three states (6 state-level administrators, 11 district-level administrators, and 3 school-level administrators) to gain an understanding of the range of state- and district-level policies in the region on this reform and the perceived barriers and facilitators for implementing competency-based learning. Interviews were conducted with nine administrators from Maine, four from Massachusetts, and seven from Rhode Island. Findings indicate that there was no common definition of competency-based learning in state and district policies or in interviews with administrators; however, researchers identified common elements of the reform (e.g., students must demonstrate mastery of all required proficiencies or competencies to earn credit; students advance once they have demonstrated mastery; students are assessed using multiple measures to determine mastery; students can earn credit toward graduation through multiple means rather than just through course taking). Results also revealed that developing the competencies involved aligning the curriculum, instruction, and assessments to the competencies. Needed supports included communication strategies, ongoing teacher support and time for collaboration, and access to more research and models on this reform. The findings from this study demonstrate that a lack of a consistent, common definition of competency-based learning that outlines the major elements of this reform leads to a broad range of practices. Education leaders at the state, district, and school levels must work together to establish a shared understanding of competency-based learning and support schools as they find ways to implement this reform so that competency-based learning will meet intended goals of increasing graduation rates and ensuring college and career readiness.”


Keywords and Search Strings

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

  • ‘Educational finance’ ‘competency based education’

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). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

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 2004 to present, were included 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 Midwest) 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.