Promising Practices and Considerations for Districts in Competency-Based Education

Promising Practices and Considerations for Districts in Competency-Based Education
Promising Practices and Considerations for Districts in Competency-Based Education


High performing education systems across the globe have based their work on a competency-based approach as opposed to the time-based system that we have in the United States. Currently, innovative states and districts around the country are beginning to challenge this outdated system and pursue an approach that calls for student demonstration of mastery. While many are currently interested in making such a shift, it is important to recognize that a host of policies, structures, and systems must be aligned. This two-part webinar series, co-hosted by the American Youth Policy Forum and the College and Career Readiness Center at the American Institutes for Research, addressed major policy issues states and districts should be considering as they think about implementing competency-based education.

This second webinar looked at two districts that have pioneered the development of competency-based approaches and examined how policies can support or hinder district level systems-change. Thomas Rooney, Superintendent, Lindsay Unified School District, California discussed the district’s motivation and approach to pursuing a district-wide competency-based system. Linda Laughlin, Assistant Superintendent, RSU 18, Maine and Co-Chair of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning (MCCL) shared her district’s progress and how collaborations such as MCCL can support the work happening in individual districts. This webinar also identified key policy questions that districts should consider as they pursue competency-based education pathways and systems. Matthew Lewis, Senior Research Scientist; Professor, Pardee RAND Graduate School, and Jennifer Steele, Policy Researcher, RAND Corporation served as respondents and shared preliminary lessons from ongoing research of several competency-based districts across the country.

Presenter Biographies

Joseph R. Harris, PhD, Managing Research Analyst at the American Institutes for Research, has an extensive background in secondary school improvement, college and career readiness, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) reform as a practitioner, researcher and evaluator. He currently serves as Director of the College & Career Readiness & Success Center, a national technical assistance center funded by the U.S. Department of Education (USED) to help regions and states promote knowledge development and dissemination and effective collaboration among CCRS stakeholders. From 2006 to 2012, he served as the Director of the National High School Center, also funded by USED, to promote college and career readiness, dropout prevention, and integrating special and general education instruction.


From 1994 to 2006, Dr. Harris served as project director for a series of major technical assistance contracts funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in support of the Systemic Initiatives, a multiyear NSF effort designed to foster STEM education reform in more than 100 state, rural, and urban school district projects. Dr. Harris also has led numerous K–12 initiatives to improve program operations and outcomes in areas such as differentiated teacher compensation, program evaluation, student assessment, strategic planning, education policy, program equity, minority student achievement, and public/private partnerships. For the first two decades of his career he was a public school teacher and administrator and, since then, has worked in a variety of public school settings. Dr. Harris holds a B.A. in Mathematical Statistics from the University of Florida, an M.A. in Secondary Education from the Catholic University of America, and a Ph.D. in Education Policy from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Linda Laughlin has just completed her 34th year as an educator.   She has worked as a High School Teacher,  Assistant Principal and Principal.  She is currently the Assistant Superintendent of Schools in RSU 18, the Messalonskee/China School System. Messalonskee/China is a PK-12 public school system that services approximately 3,000 students, in 5 towns in Central Maine. She is also the Co-Chair of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning (MCCL), a collaboration of 29 school systems in Maine, all working to implement customized, competency-based models.  MCCL represents approximately 55,743 students, 30% of Maine’s K-12 students . MMCL also has five post-secondary school partners, as well as, a number of individual and institutional members.

Matthew W. Lewis is a senior research scientist at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Lewis’s work has centered on learning and decisionmaking, with a focus on ways to support those processes in individuals, teams, and organizations. His current work includes projects exploring how technologies support learning as well as military logistics. Other projects in decisionmaking and logistics support have helped to support U.S. public health emergency preparedness and response, with a focus on best practices in real-time, high-stakes team decisionmaking. Lewis has also carried out evaluations of education programs and decision support systems in public health, K-12 education, vocational education, and military training domains. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Carnegie Mellon University and a B.A. cum laude from the University of California at San Diego, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

Tom Rooney is the Superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District. Prior to his position as Superintendent, he served as the Assistant Superintendent, Curriculum & Instruction where he was instrumental in implementing the Performance Based System in grades K-12. His previous experience includes serving as a teacher, Assistant Principal and Principal at the elementary level. Mr. Rooney is highly knowledgeable about research-based instructional practices, and is a key leader involved in work related to the development, evaluation and modification of all aspects of the Performance Based System in Lindsay Unified. He maintains a strong track record of successful and committed leadership at the site and district levels focused on serving the learners and families of the Lindsay community.

Jennifer L. Steele (Ed.D., Administration, Planning, and Social Policy, Harvard University) is a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation in Arlington, Virginia. Her interests are centered on education policy, particularly on teacher quality, data use in schools, technology-driven education reform, and military veterans in higher education. She is currently leading a federally funded random-assignment study of dual-language immersion in Portland, Oregon, and co-leading a study of competency-based school reform in five school districts. She is also studying changes in the distribution of effective teachers in four districts undertaking intensive human capital reforms. Other recent projects have included a multi-state study of Post-9/11 GI Bill implementation and an examination of choice-based education reform in post-Katrina New Orleans. Dr. Steele has previously worked as a teacher at the elementary, secondary, and tertiary levels and has managed teacher recruitment and training for a private education company.

Click here to view this webinar on AYPF’s YouTube Channel»

Presenter Information

Joe Harris


College and Career Readiness and Success Center

American Institutes for Research

1000 Thomas Jefferson Street, NW

Washington, D.C. 20007


Linda Laughlin

Assistant Superintendent

RSU 18, Maine

41 Heath Street

Oakland, Maine 04963



Matthew W. Lewis

Senior Research Scientist


Pardee RAND Graduate School

1776 Main St

Santa Monica, CA 90401

310.393.0411, Ext. 6530


Thomas Rooney


Lindsay Unified School District

371 E Hermosa

Lindsay CA 93247

559.562.5111, Ext. 5109


Jennifer L. Steele

Policy Researcher

RAND Corporation

1200 S Hayes St

Arlington, VA 22202

703.413.1100, Ext. 5245



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.