Personalized, Competency-based Learning: Unlocking the Potential of Every Learner

Why are K-12 and higher ed both shifting toward competency-based education, and how can they align so that learners are ready for what’s next?

By Matt Williams, Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer, KnowledgeWorks

Four decades removed from a Nation at Risk, we are at a crisis point in education, with the very purpose of education in this country in question. There are efficacy questions (is the system working well), equity questions (is the system working for all learners) and engagement questions (are learners bought in and owning their own learning). Imagine if the solution to the questions of efficacy, equity and engagement was to transform the system around the needs and potential of the learners. What if the system was constructed so learners could capitalize on their talents, receive unfettered supports to advance through clear, transferrable opportunities to demonstrate their learning? This is what a systemic shift to personalized, competency-based learning could provide for every learner.

There is significant pressure from students and families to transform the learning landscape in the United States. Confidence in American public schools is close to an all-time low: only 28 percent of people surveyed say that they have a lot of confidence in our public schools, down from 62 percent in 1975 (source: Gallup via The74). Further, students and their families don’t think schools are helping to develop necessary social skills and emotional maturity, equip students with job skills or prepare students to become leaders and engaged citizens (source: American Compass Failing on Purpose Survey via The74). Demand for a more student-centered and flexible approach to learning runs counter to the one-size fits all approach to education that many schools take, with 74 percent of parents reporting that the lack of focus on individual needs in K-12 schools is a problem (source: NSBAC poll).

Higher education is not faring much better. Nationally, colleges and universities are seeing precipitous drops in the percentage of recent high school graduates choosing to go to college (source: Hechinger Report).Postsecondary enrollment remains lower than pre-pandemic levels by more than 1 million students and a recent survey showed a 14 percent decline in the number of students that plan to attend a four-year college; once considered a foundational element for a bright future (Source: The74) (Source: NSCR). From the economy to the exorbitant cost to the staid sit-and-get approach to education, the reasons for this downward trend in postsecondary participation are varied.

With all the questions and challenges posed to the current system, school districts and states are increasingly turning to personalized, competency-based learning. The number of K-12 schools in the country adopting competency-based education practices is likely in the thousands and is steadily rising. The Canopy project has identified hundreds of such schools across the country using competency-based or mastery-based education

KnowledgeWorks maintains deep partnerships in selected districts and schools in nearly a dozen states across the country. For us, the most meaningful learning experiences are customized to each student’s strengths, needs and interests, and we believe the most effective way to individualize and deepen learning is through personalized, competency-based learning. In a personalized, competency-based learning environment:


  1. Students daily make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge and how they will demonstrate their learning.

  2. Assessment is a meaningful, positive and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant and actionable evidence.

  3. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.

  4. Students progress based on evidence of mastery or competency, not seat time.

  5. Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing.

  6. Strategies to ensure equity are embedded in the culture, structure and pedagogy of schools and education systems.

  7. Rigorous, common expectations for learning are explicit, transparent, measurable and transferable (Source: Aurora Institute)

KnowledgeWorks has built tools to assess readiness for personalized, competency-based learning at a district level and state level, and we help to drive work forward by translating insights about the future of education into actions we can take today - creating policies that support innovative teaching and learning and developing the capacity of educators. From our work and the work of others, many states are also increasingly revamping their systems to support more personalized, competency-based approaches.

The K-12 competency-based learning field needs the help of higher education institutions and those organizations that are working to create a higher education system that is nimble and responsive to consider the following:


  • How higher education policies - including financial aid policies, admissions requirements and course placement policies - can be retooled to respond to shifting environments within K-12, with particular attention paid to competency-based learning approaches.

  • The ways that competency-based learning offers an opportunity to meet more adults where they are in life and prepare them for a career in education, not only using competency-based methods, but also training teachers in how to teach using competency-based methods.

  • How partnerships with business and industry are critical for a necessary shift in practices to support a competency-based approach. Many fields, particularly advanced manufacturing, and the medical field, are already making shifts to competency-based approaches. In fact, those shifts have started to reshape career and technical education.

The field of education is changing and many of the same challenges outlined in the Nation at Risk remain 40 years later. These persistent challenges and a global pandemic have stalled educational attainment, student engagement and has exacerbated withering public support for and confidence in K-12 and postsecondary education alike. We must work together to pursue common goals - and more importantly, a future where education empowers learners to uncover and realize their fullest potential.

About the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN)

C-BEN is a network of institutions, employers, and experts who believe competencies can unlock the future of learning — making education and training more flexible, responsive, and valuable. We support stakeholders across the spectrum of competency-based learning, from institutions and employers who want to embed competencies into their existing programs to those looking to design full competency-based degree programs from the ground up. For more information, visit C-BEN.org

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