Introduction: Competency-Based Education
Competency-based education (CBE) is an educational philosophy grounded in mastery of competencies which are based on standards, learning objectives, and/or skills deemed crucial for learner success. When learning is competency-based, student progress is based on mastery of these competencies rather than seat time, or time spent on a subject. As defined by The Aurora Institute, the following seven elements are necessary for learning to be truly competency-based:
- Students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning.
- Assessment is a meaningful, positive, and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant, and actionable evidence.
- Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
- Students progress based on evidence of mastery, not seat time.
- Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing.
- Strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of schools and education systems.
- Rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable.
Interest in CBE among K-12 school districts and school leaders is growing due to opportunities for increased learner agency, increased student engagement, and greater transparency around not only what skills and content students have mastered, but those they need additional time to understand.
Background on Fraser Public Schools
Located 22 miles north of Detroit, Michigan, lies Fraser Public Schools (FPS)—where learning drives innovation™. The district consists of nine schools, including six elementary schools, one middle school, one high school, and an early childhood center. FPS serves approximately 4,600 students in grades K-12. According to data from mischool.org (2022-23 school year), roughly one out of every ten students has an IEP recommending service, and approximately half of all Fraser students are considered economically disadvantaged. In 2021-22, Fraser’s graduation rate was 92% with 55% of graduates college-enrolled six months after graduation.
Fraser Public Schools boasts a comprehensive curriculum that focuses on academic excellence, while also providing a wide range of extracurricular activities to foster the development of well-rounded individuals. Fraser offers open enrollment to any Macomb County resident and is dedicated to creating a supportive and inclusive learning environment where students are encouraged to reach their full potential. FPS is breaking the traditional mold of education by creating personalized learning opportunities for students and designing teaching and learning that is competency-based. Their transition to CBE began many years ago through a combined effort of staff, parents, and their board of education. Fraser students are given both voice and choice in their learning which results in increased student ownership of their learning. Through innovative programs, advanced technology integration, and partnerships with the local community, Fraser Public Schools strives to prepare students for success and create life-long learners.
Importance of Implementing Competency-Based Education in Fraser
According to Fraser Superintendent Carrie Wozniak, who has worked in the district since 2011 and been superintendent since 2018, Fraser’s decision to align to CBE and work towards being competency-based stemmed from observing a lack of student engagement—students who weren’t excited about school and who weren’t engaged in their learning. Fraser was determined to change this, believing competency-based education would increase student engagement as CBE requires students to think deeply and be active participants in the learning process. They began their CBE journey by intentionally laying the foundation and framework to ensure staff and stakeholders had the knowledge necessary to understand why change was needed and why CBE could help.
Portrait of a Graduate
One of the first milestones of their CBE journey was developing their Portrait of a Graduate (2018), which provided Fraser an opportunity to recalibrate around what was important to them as a district in regard to student learning. Their Portrait of a Graduate is made of up six deeper learning competencies—communication, creativity, citizenship, collaboration, character, and critical thinking—that are fostered in all Fraser students. These six deeper learning competencies support learning throughout the district and are the skills that Fraser feels are necessary for student success after graduation.
Another milestone in their CBE journey was developing their Strategic Plan (2019) which is aligned to their Portrait of a Graduate and helps to guide all decision-making within the district. As Wozniak explained, “Our strategic plan lays the foundation for everything that we do.” If an initiative does not fit within the four focus areas of their strategic plan—teaching practices, learning partnerships, learning environment, and digital ecosystem—it does not take priority.
Universal Design for Learning
With their Portrait of a Graduate and Strategic Plan in place setting the foundation for teaching and learning, Fraser moved forward with competency-based education. They knew that in order to implement CBE with fidelity, a strong teaching and learning framework would be required. By using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as their instructional framework, Fraser is truly “designing learning for all” as they work towards CBE. Wozniak emphasized that UDL, and good lesson design in general, is about being thoughtful as to how they engage students, how they represent content, and about providing multiple means of action and expression. Using UDL as their framework for teaching and learning helps Fraser ensure that “strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of schools and education systems,” which is one of the seven elements of Aurora Institute’s definition of CBE, and one often overlooked.
Policies, Pedagogy, Structures, and Culture
Wozniak admits that to be truly competency-based, a school district should implement all seven elements of the definition of CBE, adding that strong implementation also requires policies, pedagogy, structures, and culture that support every student in developing essential knowledge, skills, and dispositions. She believes that all four elements are crucial to success and to getting the work done and is proud that Fraser is intentional about all four parts:
- Policies built as a district
- Pedagogy or teaching and learning structures (UDL)
- Structures built to support policies and pedagogy within the district
- Culture established and fostered within the district
Fraser has been very intentional and thoughtful as they have laid the foundation and the structures for CBE which support their Strategic Plan and vision for student learning. Wozniak hopes that the way Fraser has rethought instruction—the work they have done to implement UDL and CBE—helps students understand themselves as learners, discover what it is they are passionate about, and gives them reasons to want to come to school.
Developing a Shared Vision for CBE
Historically, Fraser has provided more traditional learning paths for students. Because of this, Wozniak knew that in order to earn the support of stakeholders and develop a shared vision for competency-based education, she would have to be patient, extremely transparent, and truly take the time to listen to both feedback and concerns. Wozniak worked hard to help her stakeholders understand and make sense of competency-based education, and milestones such as their Strategic Plan and Portrait of a Graduate became anchors to their work.
Rather than making large sweeping changes, Wozniak brought stakeholders together as they moved forward with CBE by taking very small steps and being extremely transparent about what they were trying to do and why. She emphasized the importance of listening to stakeholders and reiterating that what you are trying to do is truly best for kids. As she stressed, being competency-based doesn’t mean teaching different content—the “ingredients” or the content and standards are the same. What does change is how they assess student learning.
What CBE Looks Like in Practice
Overarching Course Competencies
According to Fraser Public Schools, in order to uniformly implement competency-based learning, teachers and staff started at the core of their instructional practices. They created three-dimensional learning for students by combining content knowledge, skills, and conceptual competencies. Competencies include explicit, measurable, and transferable learning objectives that empower students.
While competency-based education in Fraser Public Schools looks slightly different in each grade-level band (elementary, middle, and high school), several overarching competencies were developed for each course. These overarching competencies are based on Michigan’s state standards and are the big ideas for what students need to know and be able to do. Each competency is supported by learning objectives or ‘I can’ statements, written in student-friendly language, giving students a clear idea as to the learning they must demonstrate. As Fraser explains, in a CBE model, students must show proficiency in the competencies. Fraser teachers set clear, achievable goals and learning objectives, and students have a clear path on how to meet the competency as well as choice in demonstrating mastery. Teachers are facilitators of learning, and students work both collaboratively and independently to achieve their goals.
At the elementary level (grades K-6), these ‘I can’ statements are measured according to the learner’s level of demonstrated mastery—Secure, Developing, or Beginning. Starting at the secondary level (grades 7-8) and including high school (grades 9-12), competencies are still supported by learning objectives and ‘I can’ statements; however, practice work makes up 30% of a student’s grade, a final exam (if applicable) makes up up 20% of a student’s grade, and then mastery of competencies make up the remaining 50-70%.
Canvas: Consistency, Customization, and Transparency
All assignments, assessments, and exit tickets are tied to one or more of these competencies and made visible in their K-12 LMS, Canvas. Canvas helps to organize course competencies, all lesson content, as well as their gradebook. In Canvas, course content is pushed out in a template to each individual classroom teacher who then customize it for themselves. This allows Fraser to have a high level of consistency across courses. Instructional coaches help Fraser staff build this out and personalize the course content as needed.
As explained on Fraser’s website, Canvas allows students to access their learning at any time and in any place. This access provides transparent understanding to both students and parents of the learning that will be happening. Canvas also allows for a high level of transparency across courses, which helps Fraser establish “rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable,” another one of the seven elements of Aurora Institute’s definition of CBE. Administrators are able to log into Canvas and pull up any teacher’s course to view assignments, competencies, mastery of competencies, and grades. The consistency of using Canvas K-12 means students are getting similar experiences no matter which teacher they have, and the resulting transparency means both teachers and administrators can ensure learning targets are being met.
Small Steps Towards CBE
The work Fraser has done to become competency-based has consisted of many small steps. One such step was to make all learning within courses cumulative (rather than averaging two disparate quarter or semester grades together). This gives a more authentic picture of student learning. Another step was categorizing all assignments and assessments as either “practice” or “competency.” Wozniak acknowledged that while a fully competency-based school wouldn’t have any practice grades (all learning would be “competency”), this is something Fraser is still working towards.
Another step towards CBE is doing away with their final exam, which currently can account for up to 20% of a student’s grade. Because learning and mastery of competencies have already been assessed by the end of the course, the final exam is a very artificial measure of student learning and results in less weight being placed on mastery of competencies. In the absence of a final exam (which is planned to take place in the 2023-24 school year), a student’s grade will be more simply weighted at 30% practice and 70% competency. While Fraser admittedly still has much to do, they have made huge strides in terms of making learning competency-based.
CBE Implementation Successes
State Testing Scores
There are several indicators as to the success of Fraser’s work to make learning competency-based. According to Wozniak, their state testing scores show Fraser is outperforming other schools with similar demographics and student populations, which speaks to the success of their UDL instructional framework that is wrapped around their competencies. Fraser’s elementary math data is very strong, which is a good indicator that their instruction, as well as the resources and tools they have in place, are successful.
Another measure of their success is Fraser’s strong enrollment. Almost 42% of their 5,000 students are school of choice enrollments, meaning that many students and families are choosing to come to Fraser. Because FPS is situated in such a densely populated area (Macomb County) with many other K-12 options for students, this high number of students choosing to enroll at Fraser speaks to the value families see in CBE and the work Fraser is doing.
Ability to Fill Learning Gaps
Wozniak feels that perhaps Fraser’s greatest measure of success has been their ability to fill in learning gaps for students. Being competency-based has helped Fraser focus on the big ideas of what students need to know and be able to do. This has allowed them to have greater success in being able to track which students need additional support and/or remediation for individual competencies. Wozniak discussed the idea of students being able to “move on when ready,” which is typically associated with competency-based learning. Wozniak explained that they are not there yet, wisely pointing out that providing remediation is extremely important, too: “Move on when ready sounds great, but it’s also about moving backward as needed. The majority of our kids need to have more time. They need an opportunity to try again.”
Being competency-based has allowed Fraser students who need it to have more time, to have the ability to try something again, and to have the opportunity to relearn something they didn’t master the first time around. Wozniak believes that being competency-based has helped them meet students where they are, provide additional opportunities for students to show their learning, and provide students with deeper learning opportunities. This is what she feels is their true measure of success in regard to CBE.
As Fraser began their journey of making learning competency-based, they did so while needing to overcome a hurdle of a traditional mindset. Fraser is situated within Macomb County, a fairly traditional and conservative area of suburban Detroit. As Wozniak explained, in such a traditional community, “trying to get people to think differently about education is hard.” The idea of competency-based education—of flexible pacing and students having multiple chances to demonstrate mastery—can make some people nervous. Because of this, Wozniak knew she would have to be very intentional and make changes in very small steps.
One of the most significant challenges related to implementing competency-based education in Fraser has been ensuring the interoperability of their multiple technology systems. It was crucial that their LMS (Canvas) communicated gradebook data directly into their SIS or student information system, PowerSchool. Additionally, it was necessary that Fraser’s curriculum products, such as Eureka Math (K-6) and Envision (7-12), could communicate back and forth with Canvas. As Wozniak stressed, “Getting an LMS that allowed us to have everything work together in a really seamless way has been very important to us. Canvas has been great.” Ensuring this interoperability helps to streamline processes for teachers and ensure that student data and grades are represented accurately and are accessible not only by teachers and students but by parents, administrators, and counselors as well.
Advice for School Leaders Considering CBE
For school districts considering competency-based education, Wozniak offered several points of advice. She stressed that you can’t do everything at once, referencing the four “buckets” of their strategic plan—teaching practices, learning partnerships, learning environment, and a digital ecosystem. These are the four areas that Fraser has deemed most critical to their success. Fraser is focused on UDL, competency-based grading, and creating powerful assessments (teaching practices), work-based learning and other educational partnerships (learning partnerships); restorative practices, SEL, and creating a supportive environment for students (learning environment); and having a rich digital ecosystem with aligned instructional resources (digital ecosystem). As she acknowledged, you can’t intensify all of that at the same time—“It’s about deciding when to amplify certain things and knowing when to pull back on other things.”
Wozniak reiterated the importance of getting systems that work for you—systems that allow visibility and transparency for teachers, students, parents, counselors, and administrators. Having these systems (e.g., LMS, SIS, instructional resources) that work for you should not only increase efficiency but should enable administrators to have the same access as a teacher. She stressed the importance of an administrator being able to lead by example—administrators should have the capability to access gradebooks, review competencies, and the knowledge of how all systems work—and be able to explain and demonstrate that to others. In Wozniak’s words, “Everyone has to know and understand what the work is.”
She also reflected on the importance of having open, honest, and frequent conversations, as well as really listening to both staff and stakeholders. She reiterated the importance of keeping stakeholders on board and bringing new ones along too. “It’s hard, and it can be exhausting, but it is important work!” as Wozniak admitted.
Fraser’s decision to align to competency-based education and the work they have done to make their vision for CBE a reality has been slow, steady, but strategic. They started by determining what they wanted students to know and be able to do (Portrait of a Graduate) and came up with a plan to guide all decision-making within the district (Strategic Plan), grounding students at the center of all their decision-making. Their Strategic Plan helps Fraser be intentional about everything they do. Fraser laid the foundation for competency-based education, brought stakeholders together, created a shared vision for learning, and continues to make strides forward in the direction of competency-based education. By prioritizing policies, pedagogy, structures, and culture, Fraser has taken deliberate steps towards making their vision for CBE a reality, empowering students to discover their passions and become lifelong learners.
The following list of resources provides insight into what other organizations are saying about competency-based education, who else is doing work to make learning competency-based, and other examples of school leaders learning this type of learning. Resources are accompanied by a short description.
- Rethinking the Master Schedule in Competency-Based Schools (Aurora Institute): Author Sandra Moumoutjis explains several ways to innovate schedule-wise within traditional systems to build schedules to accommodate CBE.
- Strategies for Responsive Pacing at the Success Center (Aurora Institute): This blog details how The Success Center at Opportunity Academy supports responsive pacing, a key element of CBE.
- A Guide to Competency-Based Learning in High School (XQ Institute): The XQ Institute explores what competency-based learning looks like in high school, providing examples from several XQ schools.
- Schools (XQ Institute): Learn more about competency-based approaches and more by diving into these profiles of XQ schools and partners.
- Implementation with Integrity (Aurora Institute, CompetencyWorks): The CBE Starter Pack series offers an entry point for having deeper conversations about how different approaches address each element of the CBE definition.
- CBE Starter Pack 1: Students are Empowered Daily (Aurora Institute, CompetencyWorks): Knowing where to get started with competency-based education can be overwhelming. The goal of this series of “CBE Starter Packs” is to help readers find their entry points. Each post focuses on one of the seven elements of the Aurora Institute’s 2019 CBE Definition.
- The CBE Design Principle 1 Rubric is a resource from the book, Unpacking the Competency-Based Classroom, in which Vander Els and Stack offer a roadmap for transforming schools in pursuit of greater equity through competency-based learning.
- Quality Principles for Competency-based Education (Aurora Institute, CompetencyWorks): Authors Chris Sturgis and Katherine Casey explore 16 quality design principles designed to help guide school districts looking to implement competency-based learning.
- Competency-Based Education in Michigan’s 21j Pilot Districts: Case Studies of Implementation and Innovation (EPIC): In this brief, EPIC outlines core components of CBE, discusses elements of CBE implementation, presents data from three case studies, and highlights both successes and challenges experienced by these districts. The experiences of these pilot districts in implementing CBE can help to inform policy and practice conversations about the potential adoption of CBE and similar instructional models to improve student outcomes and increase opportunities for deeper learning.
- Making sense of K-12 competency-based education: A systematic literature review of implementation and outcomes research from 2000 to 2019 (Wiley Online Library): The purpose of this literature review was to examine the research on K-12 CBE for factors that affect implementation, student outcomes, and the relationship between implementation and student outcomes.
- An Introduction to K-12 Competency-Based Education (Aurora Institute): This webinar examines what CBE looks like in practice in schools and discusses professional learning resources for transitioning to a competency-based approach.
- How Standards-Based Grading Is Empowering Arizona Students to Own Their Education (The74): Insights from Arizona’s Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District move towards personalized, competency-based learning.
- Advice from the Field: Initiating, Sustaining, and Scaling Personalized, Competency-Based Learning (Aurora Institute/CompetencyWorks): Fantastic read about Pirate Academy, a personalized, competency-based learning program housed within a traditional middle school.
- Equitable Grading Anchors NYC’s New Grading Policy Toolkit (Aurora Institute): This post explores NYC Public School’s new Grading Policy Toolkit in-depth as a model of how districts can support their vision for equitable learning with practical policy guidance.
- The Shift In Action: Five Takeaways From Our Journey Towards A Competency-Based System (Aurora Institute, CompetencyWorks): Spring Lake Park Schools shares five key takeaways from their journey to competency-based education.
- Rethinking the High School Transcript for the Future of Learning (Aurora Institute, CompetencyWorks): How can we accurately record evidence of student learning when it is competency-based? This blog explores the transition from a traditional high school transcript to one that serves as a better record of learner growth.
CBE-Related MVLRI Publications
- What Do We Mean When We Say Student-Centered Learning? (MVLRI): Student-centered learning, personalized learning, and competency-based education—terms widely recognized in the field of K-12 education. While we know they are related, do they mean the same thing? This report explores how each term is defined as well as what they look like in practice to gain a deeper understanding of what we really mean when we say student-centered learning.
- Competency-Based Education: A Path Towards Equitable Learning for Michigan Students (MVLRI): As school leaders across the nation are seeking to provide equitable learning opportunities for the students they serve, many are looking to design and implement competency-based learning models in their schools. While the process of shifting from a traditional education model to one that is competency-based can be challenging, school leaders are motivated by the model’s promise of equity and greater relevance for students and an increase in engagement and performance for all students.
- Competency-Based Progression: Designed For Student Success (MVLRI): This blog aims to understand why implementing student-centered principles into the learning environment can improve student engagement and make teaching and learning, no matter what environment you and your students find yourselves in, more student-focused.
- A Competency-Based Approach To Student-Centered Learning (MVLRI): Creating competencies and designing flexible learning opportunities that allow students to demonstrate mastery of these competencies on their own pathway and at their own pace is one piece of designing a learning environment that is student-centered.
- Competency-Based Progression: Designed For Student Success (MVLRI): This blog explores CBE to understand why implementing student-centered principles—such as competency-based learning progressions—into the learning environment can improve student engagement and make teaching and learning, no matter what environment you and your students find yourselves in, more student-focused.