The Shift: Competency-Based Learning

by Odetta Smith, Pattonville School District

For the Pattonville School District, August 17th and 18th, 2021 came so much faster than we anticipated. The two very full days of our professional development centered around moving instruction with learner progressions. Teachers gathered with other teachers in the district and engaged in conversations around rigor, assessment, and progressions. We were fortunate enough to have six Institute for Personalized Learning facilitators join us to both co-lead sessions and provide personalized learning sessions on a variety of subjects. All of the hard work placed in preparing for the launch of competency-based learning started several years ago. 

One of the first steps in our journey began when a small team of district and building administrators and teachers traveled to New Hampshire to visit other districts that had established competency-based learning and extended learning opportunities for high school students. From there Pattonville School District partnered with other districts for a Design Challenge Conference where community members, teachers, students, administrators, and other stakeholders gathered to design children-centered solutions that incorporated personalized learning and competency-based learning. 


Shortly after the first Design Challenge in September 2017 the Pattonville community gathered to plan and define our vision and work for the next five years. At the heart of that work was ensuring that Pattonville students leave the district as success-ready graduates. Among the sub-committees formed, one centered on Student Achievement. The Student Achievement committee’s charge was to design math and English language arts competencies. The competencies designed are overarching statements describing the knowledge and skills that apply both within and beyond the subject matter. Beyond the developing competencies, we began visiting other schools in Wisconsin, courtesy of the Institute for Personalized Learning, to see competency-based education models in action. When our teachers and principals had opportunities to see the great and diverse approaches to personalized learning, it shaped our district’s vision of what our work in learner progressions could look like.

standardsThus armed with competencies and a vision, a committee of key teachers, building administrators, and district administrators met over the span of two days in June 2019 using Missouri Learning Standards, Missouri priority standards along with the expertise of the teacher leaders to design the learner progressions. The conversations that followed in those two days centered on key questions on how to develop statements that would be both student-centered and focused on the skill needed to develop. It was challenging work. Even after the progressions were designed we kept coming back to evaluate and sometimes debate on how to use the progressions and define the work itself. Yet even in the difficult conversations, the vision and direction of the work became clearer. We decided on two levels of growth: “mastery” and “in progress” in order to provide students with plenty of opportunities to master the skills embedded in our progression.

After that first year of piloting learner progressions, some key questions emerged:

  • How do we best communicate growth towards mastery with parents and students?
  • What is the common language we need to use to describe this work?
  • What does it mean for a student to achieve mastery of a specific skill?

Yet as those questions were forming and the work towards personalized learning galvanized teachers, students, and building leaders, COVID-19 crept in. In fact, Pattonville had a team in Wisconsin in March 2020 just as schools and universities were closing campuses. Despite that challenge, we met with teachers and building & district leaders in June, masked and socially distanced, to answer those critical questions. The summer committee work consisted of really settling on definitions that reflected Pattonville’s work. We closely examined learning targets, revising, combining and in some cases eliminating learning targets. This was also the summer we began to learn about Empower. Empower Learning is a competency-based grading system that enables parents, students, and teachers to see, in real-time, how a student is growing towards mastery in our learning targets. And while it would take another year to craft our proficiency scales for each learning target, we did open conversations on thinking about what mastery meant.

After that summer work, Drummond Elementary school made a bold step in piloting Empower Learning which houses our learner progressions. Even in the midst of the pandemic, the teachers and building leadership used Empower and worked to understand how best to use it to leverage student learning. The balance of work was not easy, but their willingness to be pioneers helped pave the way for other elementary schools to join the work. And before other schools joined, we invited key teachers and leaders to revise our learning targets for rigor and then develop proficiency scales. We also provided training to building technology and instructional coaches on how to use Empower and help teachers make the shift to learner progressions.

This brings us back to August 17th and August 18th of this year. All district elementary teachers met at Drummond Elementary on the 18th to complete our second day of training. There were questions, exchanges of ideas, and time for collaboration and deepening our understanding of personalized learning. We’ll keep coming back to our vision and our why, knowing that at its heart we desire to prepare our students for lifelong learning and success.

Odetta SmithOdetta Smith currently serves as the Director of Innovation and Life Readiness for the Pattonville School District in St. Louis, Missouri. You can find Odetta on Twitter @OSmithPSD.