5 Challenges Facing the CBE Movement


Jenna Tomasello, Policy Associate

“We want graduates to be confident and competent.” Who can argue with that? That’s how Paul Leather, New Hampshire’s Deputy Commissioner of Education, opened his keynote address at the recent Regional Educational Laboratory at EDC symposium “Perspectives on the Current Landscape of Competency-Based Learning Research.”

Who doesn’t want to see young people graduate from high school confident and competent to succeed in the world? We all do. There’s a growing understanding that in order to be prepared for postsecondary education and work (and frankly, life!), youth must be equipped with a range of academic knowledge, skills, and abilities, as well as a set of personal skills that are harder to define. How we get there, however, is much more contentious.

In recent years, competency-based education or CBE has gained traction within K-12 education as a strategy to promote college and career readiness for all, to promote the confident and competent graduates we all want to see. However, a few stumbling blocks are standing in the way of the CBE movement:

1. Language

Semantics and a lack of consensus around terms and definitions are a persistent challenge in the CBE space. Following Leather’s keynote, a research, policy, and practice panel discussed the issue of language in great depth.

jenna-graphic-cbeFrom a policymaker and practitioner perspective, states and districts are not willing to implement something if they’re not sure it works, meaning research is needed to prove CBE is worth trying in schools. From a researcher perspective, the lack of consistent language of terms and definitions within the field of CBE, makes large-scale, rigorous research a challenge. In places where CBE has taken hold, like in New Hampshire, it very much emerged as a locally-driven practice that led to state-level legislation. Thus, we have a conundrum: how do we satisfy the need for universal language and implementation for high-quality research to propel CBE forward, while also keeping the integrity of CBE as a bottom-up teaching and learning strategy?

2. Quality

Varying quality is also another challenge facing CBE. During a breakout session, researchers from the American Institutes for Research presented on a recent report that found there’s as much variation of CBE practices between schools as within schools, meaning there’s a lack of consistent implementation across both schools and classrooms. In comparing schools that identify as a CBE school and those that don’t, the researchers also found that many teachers in non-CBE schools reported implementing practices commonly associated with CBE. Moreover, students in CBE and non-CBE schools reported no meaningful differences in experience in most areas of teaching and learning. Does this lack of uniformity and quality across schools claiming to be practicing CBE and schools generally suggest that teachers could be doing CBE and not know it, while others think they’re doing it and actually are not? Could varying quality across the field of CBE be contributing to stagnation?

3. Systems Alignment

jenna-graphic-cbeAnother challenge in the realm of CBE is alignment between K-12 and higher education institutions. Since a competency-based diploma and the accrual of competency-based credits can look very different from the traditional model, credit transfer from one institution to another can be difficult. States and districts might be hesitant to fully adopt CBE if student assessment and academic reporting changes and no longer aligns with what colleges and universities are looking for. In discussing the need for clear communication and transparency between K-12 and higher education institutions, one panelist pointed out the long-standing practice of study abroad as an example of how institutions can determine how credits transfer from a completely different system to another.

There’s another alignment issue that goes in the opposite direction: college graduates are entering the teaching profession unprepared to practice in a CBE school system. While CBE might be expanding within K-12 school, teacher preparation programs have not quite caught up.

4. Equity

I’ve said elsewhere that CBE can present some equity challenges. While a student-centered, self-paced, mastery-based system should create opportunities to advance equity by putting all students on the path to postsecondary success, including at-risk youth, CBE done poorly and without the appropriate resources and supports could exacerbate already existing achievement gaps and inequities.

jenna-graphic-cbeAs a Jobs for the Future report noted, CBE could have “a “rich get richer” and “poor get poorer” effect: those whose backgrounds afford them a richer array of learning environments and who thus begin school with higher skill levels may keep increasing the distance between themselves and their less fortunate peers.” Another panelist shared a story of a school that encouraged students to pursue internships outside of class as a means to demonstrate mastery of certain competencies. Students with their own cars or the social networks to find internship opportunities were far more likely to take advantage of that type of enrichment. A challenge of CBE moving forward might be an inability on the part of schools to provide the supports and resources necessary to guarantee high-quality access to all students.

5. Skepticism

While certainly not new, CBE is sometimes dismissed as just another new fad in American education. There are many reasons why one might be skeptical of CBE, as the challenges described above are just a few examples. Sometimes the source of skepticism is simply a reluctance to change. A panelist shared an interaction with a parent that asked “why are you changing things when it worked for me?” On the one hand, we want all graduates to be confident and competent, but what do we say to the many youth who will enter the world confident and competent without the help of CBE? Skepticism can come from all angles and I would argue that bringing a healthy amount to any issue is a good thing. How might CBE be improved by its critics and their feedback used to propel the movement forward?

With hopes to prepare all young people for life beyond high school, CBE has emerged as a promising strategy, but like any challenge to the status quo, CBE is not without its nuances and stumbling blocks.

Jenna Tomasello is a Policy Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.