Building a Solid Workforce through Competency-Based Education

All students deserve an educational experience that is relevant and meaningful to their career path. They need to be able to see how what they’re learning connects to their future. They should be empowered to move at their own pace, taking extra time on key skills if needed, or accelerating if they come to the table with a solid foundation. Competency-based education is an example of empowerment-based learning. In a CBE classroom, seat time becomes less important than learning time.

From Unknown to Mainstream

While competency-based education was pretty much considered an unknown a decade ago, it has garnered enough national attention that several state departments of education are now including it in state regulations. For example, the New Hampshire High School Transformation initiative supports the development and implementation of high school course-level competencies. Ohio approved a Credit Flexibility Plan that allows students to earn high school credit by demonstrating subject area competency, completing classroom instruction, or a combination of the two. Missouri has introduced a bill in its 2019 legislative session that if passed, would allow school districts and charter schools to receive state school funding under the foundation formula for high school students who are taking competency-based credits. And, competency-based education is not limited to secondary education. At the higher education level, Western Governors University, which now touts more than 110,000 currently-enrolled students and 100,000 graduates, is built exclusively on a CBE model.

CBE Requires Specialized Skills

Designing a competency-based educational program is quite a complex process. It requires considerable planning, knowledge, and experience to produce a high-quality educational product. Essentially, curriculum and instructional designers must start out asking three simple, yet essential questions: (1) What do our learners need to know? (2) What do they need to be able to do? (3) How will we know they are proficient in what they’re learning? From there, designers build an instructional map that contains three major elements: Content Knowledge, Application, and Assessment.

Content Knowledge: What Do I Know?

Typically, the content knowledge piece is based on a set of industry-based standards. For example, if a flight school is training pilots, the content knowledge might be based on FAA/Industry Training Standards (FITS). For high school math teachers, it would likely be based on standards approved by the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in coordination with specific licensure requirements adopted by a state’s department of education.

Application: “What Can I Do?”

The application piece connects what learners know and what they can do. It allows students to demonstrate their proficiency. No matter what career path we choose, being able to put our skills in action is essential. A pilot who has memorized all the parts of an aircraft but can’t take off and land safely has not yet demonstrated that she’s competent in those skills. A nurse who’s passed his written exams may possess solid content knowledge, but the real “proof in the pudding” lies in whether he can put that knowledge into practice by providing quality patient care.

Assessment: How Well Can I Do It?

Competency requires teachers to evaluate student performance in specific skill sets, using clearly defined performance indicators. One way to measure performance is through a rubric. Students must demonstrate how well they are able to apply what they’ve learned. If they demonstrate competency, they move on. If they don’t, they must go back, revisit concepts, brush up on their skills, and try again.

Building a Solid Workforce: Using CBE in High Schools and Community Colleges

As with any educational approach, competency-based education may not be appropriate for all students. However, it certainly can be viable for vocational or workforce development programs. Ideally, high schools or community colleges would partner with regional employers in fields of high demand. Within those partnerships, standards and specific skill sets would be identified, and a program would be designed based on the competency-based model. Paid internships or apprenticeships could play an important part in helping students to demonstrate their proficiency in key skills. By working closely with employers, high schools and community colleges could create a pipeline of workers who were job-ready on Day #1. This in turn would lead to increased business production, less turnover, and a more stable industrial base.


Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in quality assurance, educator preparation, and empowerment-based learning. She supports educational institutions in areas such as accreditation, program development, and competency-based education. Roberta can be contacted for consultations, webinars, and onsite workshops through her site (