Competency-Based Learning in K-12 Schools

Self-Pacing and Mastery-Based Credit is one of NGLC’s seven design principles for breakthrough schools. With this principle, breakthrough schools enable students to move at their own optimal pace and receive credit when they demonstrate mastery of the material. The goal is to personalize learning so that all students are well-prepared for college, career, and life.

How do NGLC grant recipients adopt this design principle in their school models? In the profiles of K-12 breakthrough schools, you can view the key features of each model to get a quick sense of the elements most central to their model. Competency-based learning is listed as a key feature of the following grant recipients:

  • Cornerstone Charter School’s Cornerstone Charter Health High School
  • Danville Independent Schools’ Bate Middle School and Danville High School
  • Education Achievement Authority of Michigan’s Nolan Elementary-Middle School
  • Fayette County Public Schools’ STEAM Academy
  • Great Oaks Foundation’s Great Oaks Charter School of New York City
  • Horry County Schools’ Whittemore Park Middle School
  • Matchbook Learning
  • Schools For the Future’s SFF Detroit
  • Summit Public Schools’ Summit Denali
  • Virtual Learning Academy Charter School’s VLACS Aspire
  • The Workshop School

The adoption of this design principle varies. As you browse through the profiles of these grantees, take note of the different ways in which the schools set the boundaries within which students will progress at their own pace and earn credit as they master the material.

In some schools, students move at their own pace within tightly specified boundaries—within a specific activity, within a course curriculum, or perhaps within a grade level. The boundaries create a starting point and an ending point for self-pacing through a particular curriculum and set of standards, and students earn credit for making progress within that bounded set of competencies.

In other schools, students move at their own pace seemingly without boundaries—there are no grade levels in the school, projects drive the learning and students master content as they work on projects, or students can choose how they will demonstrate mastery outside of any specific curriculum. I use the word seemingly because the programs are not completely unbounded. Students must meet state standards and must demonstrate a predetermined level of mastery before they can move on. Some schools establish minimum requirements for self-pacing—so a student who doesn’t like history, for example, can’t avoid the subject and must continue to make progress toward mastery.

Project-Based Learning: For examples of school models that integrate competency-based learning with project-based learning as key features of their model, see the profiles of Danville (6-12, district), Summit (6-12, charter), and Workshop (9-12, district).

Social-Emotional Learning: Schools that emphasize social-emotional learning in a competency-based model include Schools for the Future (8-12, charter) and Whittemore Park in Horry County (6-8, district).

Next Gen Staffing: For competency-based learning models that deviate from traditional one-teacher-per-classroom staffing approaches, see the profiles for Cornerstone (9-12, charter) and Great Oaks (6-12, charter). For competency-based models that emphasize professional development for teaching in a next gen learning environment, see EAA’s Nolan (K-8, district) and Matchbook Learning (K-8, district partner).

No Grade Levels or Courses: Instead of a course-based curriculum, the curriculum of VLACS Aspire (5-12, charter) is framed around a map of required competencies. Students may master each competency through any number of learning opportunities, many of them experiential. Cornerstone (9-12, charter) forgoes traditional high school grade levels in favor of a continuum from “Beginner” to “Professional.”





Hello. I would love to hear how the schools who have implemented competency-based models selected the competencies on which schools would be based.

Thank you for your comment Dawn. You raise an excellent question. The staff at NGLC sees most efforts to identify competencies take the form of integrating 21st century skills with college and career readiness standards (like the Common Core) as well as local graduation/diploma requirements. You may want to take a closer look at examples of competencies from VLACS and Great Oaks (see links in the blog). I'm going to do some more digging myself and see if I can pull up examples of the process of developing a competency set and the resulting competency maps. By the way, in higher education, we see faculty creating a competency map by identifying the learning objectives of the existing courses required for a degree program as well as drawing on the Degree Qualifications Profile created by the Lumina Foundation.

Hi. I am in the process of writing a charter school application for a competency-based school in St. Louis, MO. Can you suggest any curriculum models? I am intrigued by the idea of digital badging but looking for the meat that makes the curriculum sound and evidence-based.

Hi @tchr_mom. What an exciting project for you! It sounds like you're starting in a good place by looking for examples of curriculum models. The blog posts identified above, and share examples from 2 NGLC schools, Building 21 in Philadelphia and USC Hybrid High in Los Angeles. There are links to great resources in those posts that will definitely get you started in your journey. I wish you the best of luck as you design a competency-based school.

Hi Kristen I have been asked to develop a presentation for Kenyan teachers about competency based learning with a focus on primary where the Kenyan government wants to start it, subsequently moving into Junior and High School. Would there be any examples for elementary, as | have only HS experience in Biology. I have not really done any CBL in HS yet but took a course in Australia on that type of learning, which was geared towards the vocational learning.

Hello @jeliza, I recommend you visit the CompetencyWorks community site at for examples of competency-based learning in the primary grades and more information about designing and launching a new program. It sounds like an exciting presentation you are asked to do!

Add new comment