How a big district shifts to competency-based education

Mesa Public Schools developed a “portrait of a graduate” to layout the skills students need
By: | March 12, 2020
Mesa Public Schools leaders recognized that, though they had a high performing system, a shift to competency-based learning would better prepare students for the future.Mesa Public Schools leaders recognized that, though they had a high performing system, a shift to competency-based learning would better prepare students for the future. (Photo: Reaching Higher NH)

A school district, particularly a large system, doesn’t just flick the learning switch on competency-based education models.

Mesa Public Schools—the largest district in Arizona with about 80 schools, and 64,000 students—has been planning its adoption of competency-based learning for the last few years.

Administrators, first of all, want to make sure they will be able to report students’ competency-based grades accurately to colleges and universities, says Jennifer Echols, the director of personalized learning and the district’s distance learning program.

The district developed a “portrait of a graduate” to layout the skills students should have when they complete high school.


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The district also is piloting some competency-based learning environments, such as allowing students to demonstrate mastery for a digital literacy requirement without having to take a full course in the subject.

As far as grading, schools have been shifting toward a mastery focus that will give students multiple ways to demonstrate learning, Echols says.

“For classroom teachers, it’s thinking about not penalizing students for late work because that’s a behavior, it’s not connected to what they know and can do,” Echols says. “It’s thinking about issuing an incomplete and not assigning zeros, which is a grade a student can’t recover from.”

District leaders recognized that, though Mesa was a high performing system, traditional school models were not adequately preparing all students for the future, Echols said.

“Kids really need to be expert learners,” she said. “They have to be prepared to reinvent themselves and learn new things at any time based on the changes that will come at them in the world of work.”


Read our more stories in our competency-based education series.