How competency-based education will level the playing field of K-12’s future

Competency-based learning isn’t about getting rid of grades. It’s about moving past the idea that educators can only count learning that happens in class.
David Lipkin
David Lipkin
David Lipkin is the founder and CEO of LiFT Learning, a competency-based education provider. He can be reached at

For so long, education has been using a one-size-fits-all model. But when the one size provided doesn’t fit a particular learner, it can be incredibly uncomfortable. Instead of being recognized for their uniqueness, instead of building on strengths, learners are too often compared and judged. Those students inevitably experience failure.

When educators focus on instruction that nurtures student competencies—and assesses students on those competencies no matter where they demonstrate them, be it within the context of an assignment or completely outside of the academic environment—educators come to know students as whole individuals with unique strengths that are sometimes expressed in unconventional ways. A shift occurs allowing learners to be active co-creators of their education instead of passive receivers. That’s why competency-based education (CBE), which encourages transparency, personalization, and learner agency, is the future of education.

Why competency-based education is better

Competency-based education gives learners agency in co-creating their learning experience. While teachers can and should scaffold learning experiences, students know the target skills and levels of proficiency. They can therefore move forward at their own pace, knowing they will be judged on how well they demonstrated different abilities, rather than on how closely they followed directions.

They’re able to gather evidence of learning from many different places along the way and identify their own learning gaps. They’re empowered to come back to their teacher ready to say, “Here’s what I know and here’s how I can show you,” whether lessons were learned during classwork, extracurricular activities, internships, or other life experiences.

For traditionally trained teachers, the switch to CBE from traditional grading practices can take a bit longer, but once they make the conceptual shift, they tend to appreciate it. Looking at work through the lens of a skill is very simple. It’s the same criteria for everyone, and using universal rubrics for each target competency removes much of the subjectivity that goes into, for example, assigning a letter grade to an essay.

Competency-based grading is also more transparent to parents because they can see exactly what their children are capable of and how their work is measured against straightforward criteria, which is very often based on the skills valued by colleges and employers.

When parents see critical thinking, persistence, creativity, and other transferable skills being demonstrated across multiple settings, they can appreciate not just where their child may be struggling but where they are succeeding, too. A transdisciplinary, competency-based approach provides a rich picture and a playbook describing conditions for success and possible career pathways.

Leveling the playing field

Imagine two groups of students. One is able to do all the things they are told to do to succeed on a test. They were able to spend time studying, relax enough to focus on the test instead of the consequences of failing it or the clock ticking away their time to finish, to read all the questions fully before answering, and then to answer in complete sentences. Those students will likely do well on the test and be rewarded with high grade-point averages, and more challenging and prestigious academic opportunities.

The second group of students is just as intelligent, but some of them don’t speak English as their first language and struggle with the questions their teacher asks. Some others suffer from test anxiety and lose focus on the exam because they can’t stop watching the clock. These students probably wouldn’t do as well and might even be flagged for remediation or other additional support.

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The problem is that they may not need remediation. They may understand the material as well as the students in the first group, but under traditional approaches, they are assessed on their ability to take a test rather than their understanding of the material. CBE levels the playing field for these students and so many others because skills and knowledge can be assessed in a variety of ways suited to an individual’s disposition—such as a video of the student demonstrating the skill in a real-world setting, or an interview, or a collection of artifacts from an internship showing the application of skills—rather than the ability to take a test under specific conditions.

Enhancing student resilience

Imagine a student who struggles to write effectively, but who tirelessly slogs through revising draft after draft. At the end, they have this really great essay, but what are they being graded on? Traditionally, they would be graded on the quality of the essay and how well it met the criteria of the assignment.

But maybe that student also exercised a great deal of self-direction. They engaged in problem-solving, critical thinking, and emotional regulation. They took in feedback and incorporated it. They engaged in a great deal of learning and work that a peer who writes easily may not have put in despite ending up with the same grade.

Something powerful happens when educators start recognizing and validating all that extra effort. Instead of a chore, school becomes an affirming part of a young person’s life when a teacher says, “Not only did you write a great introductory paragraph and conclusion, but you also demonstrated persistence and professionalism while facing some personal challenges. Let’s be sure to give you credit for all of the skills you demonstrated.”

They can draw on that experience anytime they face challenges, and begin to believe that they have adaptive skills that empower them to learn anything.

Boosting student achievement

Once a student begins viewing the world as a series of opportunities to develop specific skills that are of value, they are empowered to learn all the time. They are no longer waiting to be told what to do to finish an assignment or a class, but are instead looking for opportunities to learn and advance. It’s a powerful shift in perspective, and one that happens fast because humans are wired to be curious learners and skill developers.

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A CBE system allows students to become skill magnets, actively documenting all kinds of learning as they move through the world. They take charge of their education, increasingly becoming metacognitive and self-aware. This kind of transformation is especially impressive among non-traditional and reluctant learners who have historically been disenfranchised by the standard model of schooling.

That typical model tells students to do what your teacher says, finish your class, and follow all the steps to earn a good grade so you can be favorably compared with your peers within narrow criteria within which you may not excel. That’s not motivating or inspiring for many students.

When students have the tools to drive their own learning—and express it in a way they feel confident and comfortable with—whole new areas of creativity, inspiration, and self-esteem begin to unfold. Success breeds success, so as they begin to feel more successful in certain areas and more in control of their future, they naturally want to build on those successes with more accomplishments.

Competency-based learning isn’t about getting rid of grades. It’s about moving past the idea that educators can only count learning that happens in class. Students and teachers, armed with transparent criteria describing each level on the journey to mastery, have permission to find new modes of learning, imbuing the school experience with much needed creativity and flexibility. Rigor and instruction remain in CBE systems, and students still complete assignments and get grades. Those grades will be backed up by portfolios containing diverse and authentic demonstrations of ability that reflect multidimensional, whole-person learning.


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