Identifying Gaps in Competency Based Learning Research

Joshua CoxJoshua Cox, a research associate for the REL Northeast & Islands at EDC and a researcher on EDC’s student-centered learning study funded by Jobs for the Future, advances knowledge of college and career readiness, competency-based learning, and the use of data to guide policymaking. With Sarah Ryan, Josh co-authored a tool published by the Institute of Education Sciences that helps policymakers and educators examine students’ experiences with competency-based learning and he is the co-author of the report Competency-Based Learning: Definitions, Policies, and Implementation. In this post, Josh shares some highlights from a recent symposium led by our REL Northeast & Islands at EDC team that focused on competency-based learning and its potential role in enhancing college and career readiness and success.

EDC’s research on competency-based and student-centered learning directly responds to policymakers’ needs for actionable findings on the effectiveness of these strategies in promoting students’ college and career success. In all of this growing body of research funded by government agencies and private foundations, we prioritize sharing new evidence and insights with the field as soon as possible to inform decision-making and policy-making. For example, a few months ago, EDC hosted a research symposium at our Waltham, Mass. headquarters led by our REL Northeast & Islands’ Northeast College and Career Readiness Alliance that engaged over 70 policymakers, district and state leaders, teachers, students, and researchers in discussing the current landscape of competency-based learning research. EDC President and CEO David Offensend presented opening remarks to kick off the all-day event, and we were incredibly fortunate to have Paul Leather, Deputy Commissioner of Education in New Hampshire, as our symposium’s keynote speaker.  

Commissioner Leather provided an overview of how competency-based learning reform took root in New Hampshire, and talked about the research that supported this move. He also discussed New Hampshire PACE (Performance Assessment of Competency Education), the state’s pilot assessment and accountability program that focuses on providing alternate routes for students to demonstrate measurable progress in specific academic skills and competencies. “I think we’re facing a new era for public education,” he noted, “Our sense is our business community is asking for this, our parents are asking for this, and our institutes of higher education are asking for this.”

Commissioner Paul Leather
Commissioner Paul Leather speaks about his state's competency-based learning reform.

Next, Dr. Aubrey Scheopner Torres, a former EDC researcher and current assistant professor of education at Saint Anselm College, facilitated a four-member panel discussion that explored gaps in existing competency-based learning research. Panel members included Leather, Dr. Erika Stump, policy researcher at the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research, and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine; Dr. Marc Brodersen, senior researcher at REL Central, and Dr. Salvatore Menzo, superintendent of Wallingford Public Schools in Connecticut.  

Dr. Erika Stump shares some of her research on competency-based learning as fellow panelist Dr. Salvatore Menzo listens.

“We had some really good conversation about what is best for students and how research needs to provide opportunities for getting insights into the practices that are working and the challenges that are happening around competency-based learning,” Stump said.

Throughout the day, participants engaged in multiple breakout sessions that explored research focused on the following topics:

  • Local implementation of a state-mandated proficiency-based diploma policy in Maine
  • The importance of assessment in competency-based systems
  • Exploring and measuring student experiences of competency-based learning
  • Connections between competency-based learning and blended and out-of-school learning
  • Contextual factors impacting competency-based education implementation, including state policy and college admissions

In one session, EDC researchers Brian Lord, Neil Schiavo, and Mary Beth Piecham presented their findings on the impact of subject matter on competency-based learning implementation. As part of an evaluation, the team gathered data to better understand high school teachers’ classroom practices and high school students’ experiences related to competency-based learning. Their data analyses revealed several factors that may influence differences among subject areas, including teacher experiences with and attitudes toward professional development, collaborative culture within schools and departments, and the extent of teachers’ preparation to provide competency-based instruction.  

The symposium also featured “The Student Voice,” a panel discussion facilitated by EDC researcher Sarah Ryan with six students from four New Hampshire high schools that are implementing competency-based learning. Here are some of the students’ comments:

  • “With competency-based learning, you start learning what your weaknesses are as a freshman in high school, not a freshman in college.”
  • “One of the most important things that it [competency-based learning] means to me is that I get to take charge of my own learning.”
  • “You can fail a test and you can retake it. This teaches you to never give up, a skill you need throughout life.”
  • “In competency-based learning, I have to keep track of my formative assessments. I have to be organized and on track with my homework independently.”
  • “Teachers give you guidelines for a project, but you get to decide how to do it.”

New Hampshire high school students discuss their experiences with competency-based learning.

Several symposium participants pointed to the student panel as the highlight of the day. One attendee noted, “Hearing from those directly impacted was very valuable. I plan to share [students’ comments] with staff to further support our move to competency-based learning.”

For the past several years, my colleague Jessica Brett and I have served as the research support team for the REL Northeast & Islands at EDC’s Northeast College and Career Readiness Alliance. We were very pleased by the success of this symposium, and are truly grateful to all of those who presented and participated. The diversity of perspectives and fruitful conversations about past, present, and future research on competency-based learning made the day  a unique—and a uniquely effective—experience for all. We look forward to continuing these conversations in the future, as EDC continues to share our competency-based learning research with the field. Learn more by watching the video of this event published by Institute of Education Sciences (IES), and explore all of the great videos on the IES YouTube channel.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017 - 6:45pm