Competency-Based Learning or Personalized Learning

Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. Competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded, and provide students with personalized learning opportunities. These strategies include online and blended learning, dual enrollment and early college high schools, project-based and community-based learning, and credit recovery, among others. This type of learning leads to better student engagement because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs. It also leads to better student outcomes because the pace of learning is customized to each student.

By enabling students to master skills at their own pace, competency-based learning systems help to save both time and money. Depending on the strategy pursued, competency-based systems also create multiple pathways to graduation, make better use of technology, support new staffing patterns that utilize teacher skills and interests differently, take advantage of learning opportunities outside of school hours and walls, and help identify opportunities to target interventions to meet the specific learning needs of students. Each of these presents an opportunity to achieve greater efficiency and increase productivity.

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State efforts

  • New Hampshire – The state is initiating high school redesign that replaces the time-based system (Carnegie unit) with a competency-based system focused on personalized learning, strong teacher-student relationships, flexible supports, and development of 21st century skills.
  • Michigan Seat Time Waiver –Michigan passed legislation in 2010 providing a seat time waiver to districts that want to offer pupils access to online learning options and the opportunity to continue working on a high school diploma or grade progression without actually attending a school facility. Additional links here and here.
  • Ohio’s Credit Flexibility Plan – This plan, adopted by the State Board of Education in 2009, allows students to earn high school credit by demonstrating subject area competency, completing classroom instruction, or a combination of the two. Under this plan, subject area competency can be demonstrated by participation in alternative experiences including internships, community service, online learning, educational travel, and independent study.

District efforts

  • Chugach School District – This rural Alaska district developed a performance-based learning system by creating, implementing, and fine-tuning thematic units, tools, assessments, and instructional approaches, and replacing replace the Carnegie unit and grade levels with 10 performance levels. This system lead to the creation of the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC) model, a standards-based approach to learning that is not tied to seat time, is flexible, and promotes student ownership over learning. The RISC model is currently in use in 16 districts and schools across the country. Additional link here.
  • Adams County School District 50 – This rural Colorado district has implemented the RISC model and created a system of learner-centered classrooms by replacing grade levels with 10 learning levels that students work through at their own pace. This approach is designed to give students the time and help they need to reach the standards at one level before advancing to the next. Additional link here.
  • Big Picture Learning School – This model seeks to provide a personalized learning experience that challenges and supports students, engages families in the learning process, and encourages students to take ownership over their own education. Each student works with an academic advisor and their parents to develop an individual learning plan that addresses their needs, skills, and interests.
  • Young Women’s Leadership Charter School – This Chicago school has moved away from tying credit to seat time and instead awards credit for specific competencies demonstrated at any point in a student’s high school career. Students earn credit for classes in which they demonstrate proficiency on at least 70 percent of academic course outcomes.

Alternative/credit recovery schools and programs

  • Diploma Plus – This model is a student-centered high school alternative for youth who are over-age and under-credited, re-entering high school, or placed at risk of dropping out. The goal of this school is to graduate students ready for college or career by enhancing student engagement and college and career preparation, and creating positive learning experiences for students. Diploma Plus works in partnership with school districts and communities in seven states.
  • Communities in Schools’ Performance Learning Centers – Communities in Schools has developed Performance Learning Centers to serve students who have fallen behind in credits. These alternative high schools are designed to help students earn credit and graduate on time by providing them with a rigorous academic environment, self-paced curriculum, project-based learning, and flexible schedules. Additional links here and here.

Additional resources:

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