Could ditching grade levels and seat time be the key to better education?


Northern Cass School District in North Dakota has a story that’s familiar to many rural districts. Their graduation rate is high, and their students typically demonstrate above average performances on state tests. However, it wasn’t until administrators began noticing that students’ skills weren’t transferring to the real world that Northern Cass decided to make some big moves. 

A new feature in WSJ details how Northern Cass found its stride in competency-based education, “a form of personalized learning that emphasizes mastery of skills over time spent in class.” Now, rather than building up their GPAs and advancing through grade levels, students in the rural North Dakota district will spend their time mastering key academic skills to help prepare them for their futures. 

Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts have faced pressure to better meet the needs of students and families. Could competency-based education be the way forward?

What Would Competency-Based Education Look Like?

Think back to your high school English classes. Instead of diagramming sentences and completing grammar worksheets, competency-based learning language arts students may find themselves more engaged in mastering skills like holding collaborative conversations and recognizing diverse viewpoints. In science and math classes, a competency-based approach could help advanced students move beyond basic standards more quickly and hone their skills in programming, robotics, and engineering.

While last year’s “reimagine education” rhetoric seemed to reach a lull in 2021, school leaders still looking to rethink the traditional metric of “seat time” and expand personalized learning have found success everywhere from North Dakota to New Hampshire to Idaho. Clearly, there’s value in that shift in mindset—we should want students to view learning as more of a journey toward mastery rather than a series of hoops to jump through. Engagement may be a misunderstood component of the learning process, but it’s a crucial one nonetheless. 

Furthermore, because rural districts tend to serve smaller populations, their nimbleness makes for some fascinating case studies on how districts could roll out competency-based learning across contexts. Despite the conventional wisdom, rural schools are often hotbeds of innovation.

 But like any prospective innovation, competency-based education would involve some pretty big kinks for schools to work out. While some students may appreciate having the entire curriculum laid out for them, others may choose to wait until the grading deadline looms before they get busy. On the flip side, there’s also the issue of students who are gifted or who enter a grade level already performing at a high level. Do they simply move on to the next grade level, and if so, what does their progression look like? 

There are some amazing teachers out there, but this level of differentiation could get pretty wonky even with the right learning management systems and online platforms at hand. Even educators of the highest caliber would need a fair amount of professional development to make it work.

The Bottom Line

The competency-based approach that districts like Northern Cass are implementing capture the exact mindset we need from school leaders. It recognizes that all students are unique, but the structures we rely upon to educate and prepare them for the future are often too standardized and systematic. Competency-based learning is a chance to challenge that. 

The burden of proof now falls on districts—mostly rural or small districts, by the way—to show how this approach could be adopted across different geographies, school cultures, and leadership styles. Part of it is a logistics thing. How do schools make it work with fidelity, and how do we equip teachers with the training they need to excel? But also, part of it is a PR thing. How do we communicate successfully about how competency-based learning is different from traditional approaches, and how do we generate buy-in from stakeholders like families?

These are the same hang-ups that have ensnared so many innovations before. However, if more and more rural, early adopter districts begin experimenting with competency-based education, the future is bright: it might only be a matter of time before we see one of the nation’s larger districts do the same.    

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