Five Problems With Shifting to Competency Based Education

May 23, 2018 by

Photo credit: Bartmoni (CC-By-SA 3.0)

By Shane Vander Hart –

Former executive director for the Gates Foundation, Tom Vander Ark, wrote a piece for Forbes that plugged both competency-based education (CBE) and personalized learning.

Here’s an excerpt:

There are two big ideas behind the shift to competence in formal education. First, students should show what they know. It’s not about turning work in, earning points, or showing up to class, they should demonstrate in several ways that they have mastered important knowledge, skills, and abilities. Assessments in a competency-based system inform student learning as well as teacher judgments about concept mastery.

Second, students should progress when ready–after they’ve demonstrated mastery of important concepts that build a platform for future learning. For the system to promote equitable outcomes, it’s important that students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs. The “move on when ready” commitment prevents passing learners along with a weak foundation which could prevent them from achieving higher level knowledge and skills.

Vander Ark noted that “it’s important that competencies not be a checklist of low-level skills.”

That’s all well and good, but the problems with this approach go beyond that. Here are five problems that came to mind as I read through his piece.

First, Vander Ark suggests that CBE is this brand-shiny new thing that has never been tried. That simply is not the case. CBE is just a repackaging of Outcome-Based Education (OBE), an education fad that was tried and found wanting by parents in the 90s.  No thanks.

Second, boiling education down to a list of competencies will diminish how much students actually know, not increase it. CBE is the enemy of a well-rounded education. What will get missed? Anything that is not assessed will be fair game for exclusion. Who decides what is essential in this system? Not the teacher. I shudder to think how this approach will hurt a student’s ability to grasp classic literature or their understanding of civics.

Third, is competency the sole goal for students? I suppose if you want to boil education down to learning skills instead of acquiring knowledge it would be, but for most parents “competency” is likely not at the top of their list.

Fourth, Vander Ark asserts that assessments are the only true measure of whether a student is competent. I would argue that is not the case.

Fifth, personalized learning the way Vander Ark promotes it can only be accomplished by sitting kids in front of computers for their instruction. Teachers will no longer teach, they will be facilitators instead. There are all sorts of problems with putting kids in front of a screen all day from limited social interaction to a diminished attention span.

No thanks.

I understand there are better ways to approach classroom instruction, but let’s consider ways that will benefit students not education tech companies.

Source: Five Problems With Shifting to Competency Based Education | Truth in American Education

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1 Comment

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    Your concerns are valid, but easily addressed by authentic competency based learning. It must not be rehashed Outcomes Based or Mastery Learning. You can learn much more by reading Over-Tested and Under-Prepared (Routledge), or the soon to be released Brainless Sameness (Rowman and Littlefield).
    I entirely agree with your concern that competency must be judged by more than just standardized assessments. Observational assessment by professional educators can once more become a part of classroom instructional design.
    I strongly disagree that there is not a place for real human teachers in competency based learning. There must be, and to be transformational, our systems must be designed for human interaction and teacher guidance and instructional design. Check out any of the Free Resources or Blog articles at

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