Skip Navigation

Follow us on:

COVID-19 and competency-based education: Where do we go from here?

August 2020

Given the abrupt transition to emergency remote learning due to COVID-19 and the continued uncertainty around what the 2020/21 school year holds, considering options for rethinking how educators, students, and families "do school" is imperative. To help inform decisions upon school reentry, the REL Southeast's Measuring Success through Competency-Based Learning Alliance hopes to shed light on a promising practice: competency-based education.

Understanding Competency-Based Education

In December 2017, the Measuring Success through Competency-Based Learning Alliance in North Carolina worked with educators and Alliance members to develop a shared definition of what competency-based education (CBE) is:

As a personalized learning approach, CBE provides a flexible and engaging learning environment in which progression is based on mastery of explicit learning objectives, or competencies, as demonstrated through evidence of student learning, rather than the time spend in a course/topic.

To further the understanding of CBE, the Alliance also created an evidence-based CBE Mastery Framework that documents key elements for successful CBE implementation.

CBE Mastery Framework

Source: REL Southeast, Measuring Success through Competency-Based Learning Alliance

Across the framework elements is a through line of equity. In the 2018 CompetencyWorks report, Levers and Logic Models: A Framework to Guide Research and Design of High-Quality Competency-Based Education Systems, Casey and Sturgis refer to the primary drivers for CBE as learning sciences and equity. The authors define equity as "ensuring that all students' learning needs are met, and the predictability of achievement based on race, income or other factors is reduced or eliminated." Part of personalizing learning means that every child gets what they need, and the Alliance's framework supports that notion.

Another layer to this work is that of cultivating a growth mindset with students and educators since quality CBE requires constant feedback and iteration. In Betsy Ng's empirical review of neuroscience research, she suggests that performance-related feedback can influence motivation. She defines growth mindset as Carole Dweck does–"a belief that construes intelligence as malleable and improvable"–and states that students who have a growth mindset are "likely to learn by a mastery approach, embrace challenges, and put in effort to learn." This mastery approach to which she refers is aligned to that of a competency-based approach that focuses on students achieving mastery with content rather than seat time.

Having a shared understanding of what CBE is allows stakeholders to communicate clearly and consistently with themselves and others outside of education. Open communication about the differences between CBE and traditional practices ensures that students, their families, educators, school and district leaders, as well as other stakeholders can support this structure of education.

Where Do We Go from Here?

As schools and districts across the country have taken to remote learning amidst this pandemic, there may be an interest in learning more about how to make the switch to competency-based systems. Acknowledging that these transitions take time and that schools, districts, and states may be in different places with their CBE policies and practices, we offer two paths to think about how CBE can work or be developed within a specific context.

Attempting to Advance Current CBE Practices

If some level of CBE is already in place and the goal is to advance that work, learning about South Carolina's journey may be a great place to start. According to the Aurora Institute, South Carolina is an "advanced" CBE state, meaning that the state has comprehensive policy alignment and/or the state has an active role to build capacity in local school districts for competency education.

South Carolina has been working on their CBE policies and practices for over five years. In 2015, South Carolina began thinking about their own Profile of a South Carolina Graduate and engaged stakeholders in conversations to determine what skills and characteristics their high school graduates should have. The South Carolina Department of Education then created an Office of Personalized Learning and in 2017/18 asked stakeholder groups to develop competencies aligned to South Carolina's graduate profile.

The state's approved Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Plan includes instructions for competency-based personalized learning as a main strategic initiative, stating that the South Carolina Department of Education is "working with all South Carolina [LEAs] across a variety of personalized and competency-based learning models to ensure that every school district in the state includes at least one school fully committed to personalized and competency-based learning."

Starting Out with CBE

For those just starting to think about CBE, it is essential to consider collaboration and equity in shifting practices to be more CBE-aligned. Collaboration is an important first step in the process and equity remains as an end goal.


The work of transitioning to CBE is challenging and collaboration can be a helpful tool to mitigate those challenges. Involving an array of stakeholders in the conversation about transitioning to CBE can help individuals understand the strong positive benefits to student learning that can occur using this pedagogical approach. Are there current schools or districts in your area working towards CBE? Are there local stakeholders like higher education or business partners who would be interested in seeing CBE practices occur in your K-12 context? What connections can be made with others who are interested and/or engaged in this work presently? Learning from others as you start this work can give valuable insights regarding both successes and potential pitfalls.

Another key stakeholder group to involve in conversations about CBE are families and other community members who are invested in education. Shifting to CBE is a big transition for many educators and students, but that transition also exists for parents, caretakers, and families. Ensuring that these groups understand the reason behind focusing on CBE programming, the research that supports CBE, and the overarching definition of what CBE is, will allow for the broader community to support CBE efforts in your school or district.


It is key for educators, policymakers, and researchers alike to understand that CBE is for every child. In their 2018 report, Designing for Equity: Leveraging Competency-Based Education to Ensure All Students Succeed, Sturgis and Casey state that "high-quality, competency-based education starts with a deep commitment to equity by leadership." In framing their case, the authors affirm that equity and fairness demand personalization–that educators must respond to students as individuals to ensure that students are getting what they need to succeed. If educational equity is grounded in the principle of fairness, then every child should receive the support, flexibility, and rigor they need to pursue their personalized learning pathway.

Considering the Shift to CBE

As you think about shifting policies and practices to CBE, reflect on these questions:

  1. How will shifting to CBE ensure that every child in my school, district, and/or state will receive the education they deserve?
  2. What level of buy-in currently exists for CBE in my context? How can I leverage that buy-in? How can I build that buy-in?
  3. How will I communicate the shift to CBE? How will I involve educators, students, and their families? Who will be a champion of this work with me?
  4. What tools or resources should I access to successfully transition to CBE? Will my teachers need training? How will they be trained? What other resources, aside from technology, should I acquire?
  5. How long will the shifts of CBE take for my school, district, or state? What is a reasonable timeline to consider moving forward?