This blog was adapted from a brief presentation I gave at the North Carolina New Schools and The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation daylong workshop, Preparing Educators for the Competency Learning Revolution.

If I tried to define competency-based education in the fewest words possible, I would say: in a competency-based system, students advance upon mastery.

But if you haven’t already, you’ll find that the concepts of “advance,” “mastery,” and even “upon” are subject to debate. Indeed, competency-based education is a topic that actually becomes more complex the more you learn about. I’ve often felt in conversations on this topic that the category or theme of competency-based education is so immensely broad that people are actually using it in a wide variety of ways and as a result, are talking past each other. We need to be clear about what it is and why it is important. We also need to be clear about the level at which we are discussing and debating this subject: Are we discussing a philosophy of competency? Debating a policy? Or prescribing a practice inside the classroom? These three categories beget different questions, concerns, and insights into how to build a coherent competency-based system. Champions of competency-based reform can hopefully begin to clarify the similarities and differences in these spheres of philosophical, political, and practical considerations in order to move the system forward on all three dimensions.

At the highest level, competency-based education is a philosophy about the terms on which students should progress. When you explain to people the concept of competency-based education and contrast it with the manner in which they learned in school, people are inclined to nod along in agreement. Many of us attended a school in which we learned content, got tested, moved onto the next topic, and then at some point in the near or far future, received a grade on that test. Even if that grade were a 75 percent—that is, even if we had failed to demonstrate mastery of 25 percent of the material—we had already moved on to new material, despite clear gaps in our understanding. Conversely, some of us can also remember times that we were mired in subject matter that we already knew, but because we were moving at a class-wide pace, we couldn’t accelerate. Finally, learning scientists have long told us that students indeed learn at different paces, and yet our schools tend to measure learning in credit hours. Taking all of this into account, most of us can agree that counting instructional hours as a proxy for learning is not rational.

Thus, philosophically, there is pretty broad agreement on this idea that we would want a school system in which our students could advance upon mastery—not before and not much later. Sometimes, however, that agreement seems to provide too much comfort among champions of competency-based education: if everyone is on board, why should implementing this new model prove so difficult?

In part, I believe that we still face obstacles where the philosophy undergirding a competency-based system proves messy or even controversial. For example, there are still deep questions about what equity means in a competency-based system. Do we want a system with a floor (students must move at a minimum pace but can sail as far as possible above that floor) or ceiling (once students hit that target, high school as we know it ends)? There are also persistent questions about what constitutes competency unto itself. Should competency or mastery map to the labor market or some other broader definition of life readiness? Or should competency just mean mastering state standards? These are the types of questions I think school systems need to wrestle with before getting into the technicalities of policy or practice.

Competency-based education is also a policy. In recent years, more and more state legislatures and departments of education are attempting to codify the philosophy of students advancing upon mastery in statute or regulation. Most straightforward are those policies that move away from time-based measures of academic credit, such as issuing seat time waivers or getting rid of the Carnegie unit altogether.

But that is likely too shallow an understanding of a wholly competency-based state policy framework. A fully functioning competency-based system will have to contemplate new ways of structuring the system as a whole. Accountability, for example, will look very different if not all students are expected to show the same level of mastery at the same time in the academic year. Testing will look radically different if assessment is offered on-demand and if multiple forms of assessment can qualify as evidence of mastery. Funding may look different if students are coming in and out of the system at different times. Scheduling, attendance, and teacher line-of-sight rules may shift if students are increasingly earning credit in out-of-school experiences or internships.

In some ways the recent years’ battles around seat-time waivers may have lulled some of us into thinking that there is a quick policy fix to get us to a fully competency-based system. Once we start talking about these bigger levers like accountability, testing, and funding, however, competency-based education quickly becomes a whole system consideration, rather than a one-off reform or waiver.

Finally, competency-based education is a practice that teachers and leaders and students live every day inside competency-based schools. These practices put into action the philosophies of competency-based progression and hopefully are implemented in a manner that shepherd all students on the pathway to mastery. What may be confusing to some, though, is that a number of the practices common in competency-based schools look a lot like practices that have been around for a long time or echo other models popular in different pockets of the reform community like best practices tied to project-based learning, data-driven instruction, or community schools.

These practices include things like frequent formative assessment, performance assessment, grading based on individual competencies, eliminating the “F,” and professional learning communities for teachers to facilitate cross-disciplinary instruction and definitions of mastery. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather demonstrates that many such practices are not unique to competency-based education. Indeed, our research earlier this year showed that schools may still remain committed to a heavily time-based school culture, while adopting a few of these practices in name only. But it seems to me that if a number of these practices are implemented to support a clear philosophy of competency-based education, if they are effectively supporting that original idea of students advancing upon mastery, they can add up to an entirely new model of schooling that can truly prepare students for their future.