Competency-Based Education: A Path Towards Equitable Learning for Michigan Students

Published on September 29, 2021
Written By: 

Christopher Harrington, Ed.D.Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

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Christa GreenMichigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

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.

Suggested Citation

Harrington, C., & Green. C. (2021). Competency-based education: A path toward equitable learning for Michigan students. Michigan Virtual University. https://michiganvirtual.org/research/publications/competency-based-education-equitable-learning-for-michigan-students/

Acknowledgements

The research team at Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) would like to thank the Michigan Competency Consortium, now known as the Future of Learning Council, for their partnership and contributions to this study. The Future of Learning Council is led by Dr. Dave Richards, executive learning strategist with Michigan Virtual. The research team would especially like to thank the Future of Learning Council member school districts for their partnership and participation in this study, particularly: 

  • Kelly Coffin, assistant superintendent of innovation and strategic initiatives for Farmington Public Schools; 
  • Dave Eichberg, superintendent of Berrien Springs Public Schools; 
  • Phil Jankowski, former assistant superintendent of Armada Area Schools; 
  • Sarah Pazur, director of school leadership for Charter School Partners; 
  • Chris Timmis, superintendent of Dexter Community Schools; 
  • Tim Throne, superintendent, and Ken Weaver, deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Oxford Community Schools; 
  • Monique Uzelac, program director, and Sarah Giddings, curriculum coordinator for Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education;
  • and Carrie Wozniak, superintendent of Fraser Public Schools

Without the generous contribution of their time, insight, and support, this study would not have been possible. 

Introduction

While the definition of competency-based education (CBE) changes slightly depending on the organization or the source, perhaps the most widely accepted definition in the field of education is from the Aurora Institute CompetencyWorks program. CompetencyWorks has defined competency-based education as a system-wide school model in which (a) students are empowered to develop and maintain agency over their learning; (b) assessment is evidence-based and empowers learners to grow; (c) students receive differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; (d) students progress through their curriculum based on evidence of mastery and not seat time; (e) students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing; (f) strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of the school system; and (g) one in which rigorous, common expectations for learning are transparent, measurable, and transferable. CompetencyWorks believes that the concept behind competency-based education is quite simple: learning should be measured by students demonstrating mastery of concepts and skills rather than by hours spent in a classroom on a topic. 

Similarly, according to KnowledgeWorks, in a competency-based learning environment, each student gets what they need to reach their fullest potential through flexible pathways and differentiated support. Students have agency when it comes to collaboratively co-constructing these pathways, and measures of mastery incorporate community input to ensure pathways are culturally responsive. Competency-based education is based on the principle that all students can learn at high levels and often emerges as a systemic approach to ensuring personalization across a state, community, school district, and/or throughout a school.

In order for a school to be competency-based, the Aurora Institute stresses that it’s more than just allowing for flexible pacing or simply creating competencies. When aspects of a competency-based learning environment are implemented in isolation within a traditional model, the definition of CBE becomes distorted and may affect students’ ability to fully realize its intended benefits. In order for a school to be truly competency-based, it requires system-wide changes which affect instruction, scheduling, and grading to name a few. Nationally recognized competency-based learning and assessment specialist Rose Colby believes that while grading practices are an aspect that need to change in order to move to a competency-based system, they should be the last thing that is tackled as changing grading alone is not enough to change the system. 

At its core, competency-based education is driven by the need for equity—no matter who is defining it. It is driven by the need for flexible structures which allow students to progress at their own pace after demonstrating mastery. It is driven by the need to foster deeper learning while equipping students with skills that will prepare them more effectively for entering their future after graduation. It is driven by the desire for all students to succeed, not just some. 

Study Overview

This study was conducted by Michigan Virtual Learning Research institute (MVLRI) to provide a snapshot of how some school districts within the state of Michigan are working toward the establishment of refined competency-based education models. Of particular interest to the MVLRI research team was gaining an understanding of the motivations behind transforming traditional, systemic practices to be more competency-based as well as the catalysts and barriers that school leaders experienced as they worked through their transformation.

MVLRI researchers also investigated some of the specific practices that school leaders have implemented in this study. As more and more school leaders and instructional staff throughout the nation seek to understand what competency-based education “looks” and “feels” like in practice, the research team believed it was necessary to share some descriptive examples of how these practices manifested within the subject schools of this study. In addition, the MVLRI research team provides some direct recommendations to school leaders seeking to design and implement competency-based models within their schools.

Research Questions

In order to explore the motivation school districts have for designing learning competencies as well as the innovative ways in which schools are already implementing competency-based learning components, our research questions were as follows: 

  1. What motivates schools to design and implement competency-based education models for K-12 students?
  2. In what ways are Michigan schools implementing competency-based education?
  3. What are the catalysts and barriers for the implementation of competency-based education in K-12 schools and districts?
  4. What are the design and implementation recommendations from MVLRI to Michigan K-12 schools and districts seeking to design and implement competency-based education models for students?  

Methodology

This research study utilized a qualitative approach with data collection occurring through interviews of leaders from eight Michigan school districts. The following schools, representing various implementation stages of competency-based education, included: Armada Area Schools, Berrien Springs Public Schools, Charter School Partners, Dexter Community Schools, Farmington Public Schools, Fraser Public Schools, Oxford Community Schools, and Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education

At the time when this study was conducted, the participating school districts were members of this Michigan Competency Consortium, which was a self-organized group of school leaders who collaborated with each other as each district designed and implemented their own competency-based learning models—models aimed at meeting the unique needs of their individual school communities. This group is now known as the Future of Learning Council. 

Because the study was limited to just eight school districts, our findings are by no means generalizable to all schools in Michigan. Despite our efforts to include school districts that would represent a demographically and geographically diverse population, we were unable to include the perspective of an urban district. Participation in the study was also impacted by the disruption resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent challenges facing both teachers and school leaders.

Discussion of the Findings

As we discuss the findings of this study, it is important to remember that each of the participating school districts are on a path towards competency-based education. While they have by no means reached their destination and still have work to do, getting started is an accomplishment in itself. They have each made working towards competency-based education a priority and have set in motion what they believe will work best for their students, their district, and their community. 

From vision to reality

Each of these school districts’ paths towards competency-based education began with a vision—a vision to improve learning outcomes for students. The challenge lies in bringing that vision to reality. In our conversations with school leaders as part of this study, some common themes emerged as they shared their visions for making learning competency-based.

Every school leader we interviewed had the growth of each and every individual student as a motivation and a priority in the design of their program. This was a non-negotiable. Knowing that each student in their district could perform better and achieve more if given the opportunity within a more student-centered academic structure, school leaders demonstrated a commitment to designing programs that identified and honored where students were academically at any given time, and then designed learning experiences that enabled students to move forward. “We knew our kids could do better,” explained former assistant superintendent of Armada Area Schools Phil Jankowski. “Our whole philosophy is to meet kids where they are.” Superintendent of Oxford Community Schools Tim Throne also shared, “The traditional way of learning is not going to work for all kids.” Throne elaborated indicating that their motivation for moving down the path of competency-based education was “…continually trying to create better systems that allow us to personalize, that allow students to have agency and to go as fast or as slow as they need in each of their courses, to give students opportunities to demonstrate mastery of competencies.”

“We knew our kids could do better. Our whole philosophy is to meet kids where they are.”

– Phil Jankowski, former assistant superintendent of Armada Area Schools

Another common theme related to the motivation for shifting to a competency-based learning model was the desire to provide more interdisciplinary learning experiences for students. Sarah Pazur, director of school leadership for Charter School Partners, explained that students within her schools’ system “…are able to ‘see’ the connections between content areas.” According to Pazur, Flex Tech High School’s course content is highly integrated, meaning teachers of different academic subject areas collaborate and co-create real-world learning experiences for students so they discover and understand relationships between subject matter content.

Providing equity in learning opportunities was another primary motivation for school districts to make the shift toward competency-based education. Superintendent of Fraser Public Schools Carrie Wozniak passionately shared, “Equity is a huge conversation [in schools] right now, and CBE is a way to get there.” At the heart of Fraser Public Schools’ competency-based education program is their “Portrait of a Graduate,” which defines the skills, attributes, and learning experiences the district believes all students need for lifelong success. Many schools throughout Michigan—and across the nation—have also developed similar portraits as a way to articulate what an equitable academic program should achieve.

Other school leaders participating in this study agreed that in order to attain the goal of equity or realizing the vision of their Portraits, a higher degree of personalization and understanding the unique needs of each and every individual student is necessary. Monique Uzelac, program director for Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education (WAVE), emphasized the importance of connecting with students to truly understand both their academic and non-academic needs is the key to developing curricular pathways for students. Uzelac added that this approach is not only the responsibility of the school staff, but it is also the responsibility of the student; there is an expectation at WAVE that both the school’s staff and the students co-create students’ personalized learning pathways. 

WAVE curriculum coordinator Sarah Giddings elaborated, stating “I don’t see competency-based programs being as successful if there isn’t time for advising [students] because if you’re trying to personalize learning plans, students truly are the driver of their learning.” WAVE has seen tremendous success in this area as a result of intentionally building time into teachers’ and students’ schedules to have conversations about students’ needs and interests and the co-creation of learning pathways that move each student forward. Specifically, teachers have one hour per student advisee per week built into their schedule. This individualized approach allows for elevated levels of both student and teacher empowerment. At WAVE, teachers are contracted for 230 days per year with a 40-hour work week. Their year-round schedule provides ample time and flexibility for this personalized interaction to occur. 

“What we are doing, not only serves our kids, but it [also] serves our staff.”

Monique Uzelac, program director for Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education

Superintendent of Berrien Springs Public Schools Dave Eichberg also strongly believes that competency-based education is a linchpin to providing equity and meeting the needs of all learners. “I look at competency-based education as the conduit to personalized learning,” Eichberg stated. As the school district began its conversations about making learning more personalized for students, Eichberg reported, “[At Berrien Springs,] we began to ask ourselves, what needs to change in order for us to begin moving in the direction of meeting the learning needs of all students? As we read, went to professional learning, considered best practices, and read the research, it became very clear to us that our best hope of ever getting there was to work towards a competency-based model, towards personalizing learning for every kid.”

The competency-based education effort in Dexter Public Schools has been evolving over the past several years, with significant strides being made through the adoption of their Strategic Directions Framework for 2015-2020, which included the development of their Learner Profile, which is akin to a Portrait of a Graduate. During the summer of 2020 and under the leadership of superintendent Chris Timmis, further definition of the Profile continued through the development of district-wide competencies and related curriculum continua for each of the competencies. District leaders and instructional staff are now in the process of mapping curricular content that addresses the required state standards to learning experiences that provide pathways to competency attainment.

The team at Fraser Public Schools also mapped their curriculum to their Profile of a Graduate. According to superintendent Carrie Wozniak, teachers have invested a significant amount of time developing their own digital content into their learning management system (LMS) instead of relying on an online course content provider. Wozniak also emphasized the importance of designing content and learning experiences within a framework—such as the Universal Design for Learning framework—that supports competency-based learning. Working within such a framework allows Fraser instructional staff to be very intentional about their instructional design, providing an unprecedented level of transparency and clarity for students and their families.

“The kids know what their competencies are, they know what they have to do to move on to that next level.”

– Carrie Wozniak, superintendent of Fraser Public Schools

Director of school leadership Sarah Pazur confirmed that the instructional team at Flex Tech High School also designed their learning experiences for students within a competency-based framework. The team started with a focus on crosswalking content and skill development standards as part of the development of core competencies. Developing and structuring content and learning experiences around these competencies, with an emphasis on project-based learning, became their focus as they designed and implemented their competency-based learning program.

Oxford Community Schools has taken a somewhat different approach to competency-based education and is partially through the development of a full, district-wide CBE program. The district has adopted a K-12 International Baccalaureate (IB) academic curriculum, and according to deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction Ken Weaver, all of the district’s traditional students experience the IB curriculum in grades K-10. As a result, they are evaluated within a standards-based framework. Students in eleventh and twelfth grades are not required to participate in the IB program; however, they have the opportunity to opt in to the program.

Superintendent Tim Throne added, “Are we the definition of competency-based? No, we probably aren’t even halfway there yet. But we are moving in that direction. We are continually trying to create better systems that allow us to personalize, that allow students to have agency and to go as fast or as slow as they need in each of their courses, to give students opportunities to demonstrate mastery of competencies.” Throne also explained that their Portrait of a Graduate work helped them understand how to more effectively deliver learning and what their ideal conditions for learning were. The Portrait is used by every Oxford school and program, and it serves as the bridge or common link between the IB and non-IB schools within the district. “Alignment is key,” added Throne. Oxford has been working on alignment for the last 7-10 years, and the Portrait helps to maintain consistency despite any staffing changes that may occur.

Barriers and catalysts

While the participating school districts in this study are realizing success related to their competency-based education programs, their school leaders noted some significant barriers related to the design and implementation process. One of the most significant barriers was the resistance of some teachers and administrators because the education process in a competency-based model is much more transparent than in most traditional models. In a mature CBE model, students, families, and administrators generally have greater visibility into the instructional and assessment practices within classrooms. For many teachers, this is a significant concern and is often uncomfortable for them.

Acclimating students, as well as the adults who support them, to a new way to experience education was also a barrier. School leaders shared that shifting to a model that provides personalized learning options and requires agency on the part of students necessitates extensive conversation and vision building. The process of developing a shared vision of competency-based education was different in every school district as the existing culture determined the degree of “unteaching” of traditional habits and changing mindsets that was necessary. 

During the implementation process, barriers related to managing the needed flexibility of student and teacher schedules as well as the necessary curricular resources emerged. In order to provide personalized learning experiences or pathways, district- and building-level leaders must be responsive to the needs of all students within their school district, and this likely means that traditional bell schedules, teaching assignment formats (e.g., face-to-face, online, blended, hybrid, etc.), and work hours will be called into question. Maintaining compliance with the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) as it pertains to seat time requirements and the reporting of grades were also reported to be a challenge for school leaders. Standardized, statewide assessments don’t always measure what matters locally to a school or district, yet valuable time and resources are often committed to this process.

In some instances, limitations of technology resources were a barrier for school districts. In order to provide equitable access to curricular opportunities, participating school districts relied on the extensive use of a digital curriculum. To a large extent, these school districts developed much of their own digital content, which was housed within an LMS. The creation of digital content and the development of a digital learning environment required an extensive amount of time and continues to be an ongoing process. In addition, school leaders needed to overcome limitations associated with accessing this digital curriculum by providing adequate access to computing devices—often in the form of a computing device for every student—as well as ensuring that students and staff had appropriate access to the internet. An additional technology barrier indicated by participating school districts was the integration of their LMSs to their student information systems and any other technology database used to track and monitor student performance.

While several barriers to the design and implementation of a competency-based learning model were identified, school leaders also indicated that some specific conditions and processes served as catalysts during their transition to being competency-based. Having an established and clearly articulated overarching vision of teaching and learning was reported as being critical by participating school leaders. For many school districts, this vision took the form of a Portrait of a Graduate or a similar representation. School districts without an existing documented vision made the development of one a top priority, incorporating various stakeholders in the visioning and strategic planning process to help establish the mindset needed for change. 

Although technology resources were listed as a barrier for some school districts, it was also reported as a catalyst for others. Some school leaders shared that they already had adequate computing devices for students, some digital content, and a robust LMS through which students interact with the digital content and their teachers. Having these resources in place provided a foundation for schools seeking to establish ubiquitous learning environments that provided a variety of learning formats for students.

The presence of a trusting and respectful school culture was also identified as a catalyst in making the shift from a traditional education model to one that is competency-based. Schools and districts that invested time into the development and maintenance of a culture that encouraged instructional risk-taking and placed value on developing collaborative relationships among the staff and students experienced quicker success as they implemented competency-based learning strategies. School leaders reported that staff readiness to make such a significant shift in the teaching and learning models within their schools required the willingness of teachers, and having a strong, positive culture was key to making the shift possible.

Related to maintaining a strong, positive culture is the need to hire staff that have the mindset to drive change and innovate in the classroom. The design and implementation of an effective competency-based education model is a multi-year process, and during that time, school leaders will likely need to replace staff and administrators due to retirements and employment mobility within the district or state. Effective recruitment and hiring practices that identify and attract people who have the mindset to drive change and provide the proper guidance, support, and leadership to their peers was also identified as a catalyst.

The ongoing development and growth of both staff and administrators emerged as another catalyst for implementing a competency-based education model. Participating school leaders cited that professional development that was strategic and intentionally designed to help staff and administrators support competency-based learning was essential for the success of their school districts’ implementation. 

The final catalyst that school leaders identified was consistency in leadership at the district and school building levels. In order to effectively create and maintain the conditions and processes referred to above as catalysts, stability in district- and building-level leadership is needed. Participating school leaders explained that where individual leaders remain in a school district for 3 or more years, the likelihood of instituting and maintaining change (i.e., a shift to competency-based education) is far greater as there is more continuity in terms of maintaining the established vision for teaching and learning.

Implications

The findings of this research study are based on the perspectives of leaders from eight Michigan school districts that have implemented competency-based education to some degree. Recommendations based on the expertise of these school leaders are provided here by MVLRI researchers to help administrators of other school districts—both within and beyond Michigan—as they design and implement competency-based learning in their schools and districts.

Establish a compelling “why”

The process of designing and implementing a systemic, competency-based education program is complex and requires significant time and effort to accomplish. School leaders should first establish a strong and compelling “why”—a future vision for learning in their school district. For some school districts, their Portrait of a Graduate serves as their vision, their beacon on the horizon that helps keep implementation efforts in focus when the process becomes challenging. For others, the vision may be articulated through a formal strategic planning process.

A common strategy for developing a systemwide vision is to assemble a group of stakeholders that can serve as advocates and represent the needs of the greater school community. According to Kelly Coffin, assistant superintendent of innovation and strategic initiatives for Farmington Public Schools, the participation of various stakeholders in the strategic planning process can help establish the mindset needed for change. “The community has to be with you every step of the way. They can’t see what they can’t see,” explained Coffin. WAVE program director Monique Uzelac and Oxford Community Schools deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction Ken Weaver both agreed, suggesting that the process of developing a shared vision is an opportunity to pull stakeholders together to process thoughts and ideas that will coalesce into a forward-thinking vision of teaching and learning.

Establish a strong digital learning ecosystem

With a compelling vision for teaching and learning developed and adopted, logistical work related to the alignment of curriculum, instructional practices, assessment methods, and supporting technology resources can be identified and executed. A well-designed digital learning ecosystem will provide options for students to learn in a variety of formats, regardless of where they are physically located.

Coupling high-quality digital content with research-based instructional and assessment practices within face-to-face, online, and blended learning environments is fundamental to providing flexible learning options for students and families. However, specific attention must also be given to the technology data systems  (e.g., LMS, student information system, assessment system, etc.) that support the teaching and learning process. “We had a strong commitment to the philosophy and the approach, but we had to figure out how exactly, on the backend, how to make it work. We had to figure out how the [data] systems could fit our model,” shared Sarah Pazur, director of school leadership for Charter School Partners. Her team had to get creative to find a student information system that would work with their competency-based and project-based philosophy; they had to work out scheduling challenges, and how to build in the advisory time that is so critical to their program.

Nurture the empowerment of people

School leaders seeking to effect the change necessary to shift to competency-based education must create a school culture that is built upon trust and encourages strategic risk-taking. Developing such a culture will provide a foundation that nurtures the empowerment of individuals and their capacity to learn and to lead administrators, teachers, and students.

School culture is positively impacted when school leaders are intentional about hiring or promoting staff with mindsets that support the intended vision of the school district. According to Dexter Community Schools superintendent Chris Timmis, it is important for school leaders to “Identify positive deviants within the organization. Find out who in [your] organization inspires and energizes you. These are the people that you want to have right along with you to do this work.”

Intentionality behind the structuring of professional development is another way to empower staff. Personalizing learning or professional development for teachers, much like we ask teachers to do for their students, is an effective way to engage teachers and develop agency in their learning. Director of school leadership for Charter School Partners Sarah Pazur suggested that school leaders need to be patient when it comes to establishing an effective personalized professional development program, as the process takes time. “You have to go slow to go fast. Invest in professional development for the long haul,” Pazur added.

Practice effective change management 

Making a shift to competency-based education requires system-wide planning and support from the greater school community. School leaders would be wise to consider the principles of change management with implementation being pre-planned, as much as possible, to provide transparency in the process and to allow traditional school structures to change at the proper time and pace. 

Throughout the entire design and implementation of the competency-based learning program, the process of communicating with and involving stakeholders from the school community is essential. School leaders must recognize the make-up of their community and the divisions that may exist. Kelly Coffin, assistant superintendent of innovation and strategic initiatives for Farmington Public Schools, shared that school leaders need to be cognizant of the barriers that may exist in the change process, pay attention to them, and make sure to address them. Coffin explained, “It’s easy to talk about this [CBE] and want it, but you need to build the capacity, the resilience, the strength, and the staff to lead through it.” 

Conclusion

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 greater relevance for students and an increase in engagement and performance for all students.

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute conducted this study to share the ways in which some school districts within the state of Michigan have progressed in their journey to be more competency-based. While the participating schools have made great strides in this work and their students have been positively impacted, each school leader believes that there is room for growth and improvement within their programs. They believe their work is ongoing and that they need to continue to evolve their school districts’ program to continually adjust to meet the needs of their students.

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