The crux of competency-based education is that students advance only upon mastery. This is a deeply logical approach to unlock each individual student’s ability to learn at his own pace. Students who have not yet demonstrated mastery should not advance before they have filled the gaps in their understanding because, left neglected, these gaps only stand to grow as students try to take on more challenging work. Likewise, students who have demonstrated mastery should be able to progress forward to new or more challenging material, rather than being made to wait for the time allotted for a given lesson to elapse. Clear as this may be, however, there is some debate as to what we mean by “advance”: if we imagine this to be linear, do we think advancing means going “rightward,” progressing onto the next unit or eventually onto the next course? Or might advance actually mean going “downward,” deeper into additional applications or more sophisticated concepts?

This is not a new debate in competency-based circles, and it is one that some dismiss as sheer semantics. That’s because usually within a unit or course, “new” topics will often build on the topics that a student has already mastered; in other words, a new skill or content area will be a deeper iteration of the prior one. But the notion that wherever students go next is inherently a “deeper” exploration of material might not apply to every model and might not always achieve the goal at hand. In some settings, we may value moving students through a lot of material more quickly—I think, for example, of how many of my law school classmates studied for the Bar Exam. In that context, there is so much to cover that a strategic use of study time means not necessarily going deep on every topic; still, Bar preparation software programs are often competency-based, in that they require you to pass certain modules to move on to new topic areas.

Moving beyond the semantics, this debate forces us to be precise about what learning pathways should actually look like within competency-based models. This can in turn illuminate the practical decisions and normative challenges embedded within the question of what “advancing” really means, particularly as it relates to equity and personalization.

There are lurking questions around how we might foster equity as students move through material in a competency-based system. Competency-based schools often lay out a minimum set of competencies that students must demonstrate in order to graduate. Those clearly provide a floor, but not a ceiling, in terms of what we expect students to master. These minimum standards will be aligned with what competency-based schools will sometimes call a “minimum pace” or a “negotiated pace.” This is intended to ensure that students will not linger too long on any one topic. In such a model, if advancing upon mastery means going deeper, students moving at or around the minimum pace will likely have few chances to go as deep in a given area as their peers moving at a faster pace. Instead, they will have to move on to the next competencies or standard upon demonstrating the bare minimum so as to maintain that minimum pace. Of course, such a regime already exists in many schools with advanced tracks and APs, but competency-based educators should be attuned to the possibility that competency-based models will not necessarily cure the ills of the achievement gap.

Alternatively, if advancing only meant moving forward, the “floor” of what was expected of students would become the ceiling. Such a model might require that all students only achieve a fixed set of competencies and nothing further or deeper. The variable therefore would simply be how long it took students to graduate, rather than their exposure to varying levels of depth prior to graduation. Such a model may offer greater equity of outcomes, but this approach may lower the bar of what many students stand to achieve.

Personalized learning pathways, however, may mitigate some of these equity concerns and tradeoffs. If a school places a premium on students not only moving at their own pace, but actually charting their own path, then each student’s path may be necessarily different but not necessarily unequal. This is dicey territory, because it requires clear authentic assessments to gauge learning in an equal way, regardless of which path to mastery students are taking. But assuming we can nail those assessments, personalized models might also allow educators to take students’ interests and strengths into account, such that some students will enjoy deeper explorations in subject areas that interest them and may simply want to achieve the minimum competencies in areas that bear less relation to their passions or postsecondary goals. So long as, then, the minimum competencies are sufficiently rigorous, diversity in where students elect to go deeper may be a byproduct of effective personalization rather than persistent gaps based on ability or speed.

Personalization also opens up the possibility that learning need not be so linear as to simply go “rightward” or “downward” as described above. Some educators, like the school leader at Next Charter School in New Hampshire, have described gearing their school model to follow a “web-like structure of learning,” rather than moving through units or courses. This is not dissimilar from the way online learning platforms like Khan Academy and VLACS are starting to “map” learning. This web-like format makes more concrete the possibility that students may choose to go deeper in certain areas and can move around learning targets based on their interests, rather than a predetermined path that marches them onward, or alternatively, downward.

We are still in the early stages of understanding effective competency-based models. Moving forward, whether the field can agree about what “advancing” ought to mean will require both empirical studies of actual competency-based models and philosophical debates about the consequences these models pose to equity and achievement.