Perspective | Reflecting on a decade of investments: How competency-based education can help North Carolina achieve educational equity

This is the fourth piece in a five-part series of perspectives from RTI International on competency-based education amid COVID-19. Follow along with the rest of the series here.


Today, we find ourselves racing to find a cure, to reopen our communities, to figure out what “normal” means again. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare our education system, highlighting deeply rooted inequities that make remote learning a challenge for many students and educators.

Our present situation has changed the way we are finishing this school year and will likely change how we enter the next. Ten years ago, North Carolina’s education system was also undergoing changes that began to pave the way for increased equity across the state. Looking back over the last decade, how much better off are we because of these investments? How do we take what we’ve learned from the past to enhance equity in our present and future?

In 2010, North Carolina was awarded a $400 million Race to the Top (RttT) grant. About half of the funds were provided directly to school districts and charter schools, while the remainder was used for statewide implementation of improvements for all public schools. Some highlights of the progress identified in the 2015 closeout report  include updating the North Carolina Standard Course of Study, implementing data systems to better support instruction, and improving performance of some of the lowest-performing schools.

RttT positioned North Carolina public schools with some key supports and infrastructure to continue on a path of improving educational outcomes for all students. Technology access and infrastructures in schools — ranging from the installation of broadband in school facilities to increasing the number of devices available to students and teachers — enabled more blended and digital learning opportunities and connected both students and teachers with resources for continued learning and assessment of progress.

Following RttT was the 2015 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with the signing of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The ESSA legislation provided more autonomy for states to consider their own students and contexts in making evidence-based decisions to improve schools and student outcomes.

Once again, North Carolina had the opportunity to be more creative and innovative with how to work towards equitable outcomes for all students while building on its successes from RttT. The guiding principle of North Carolina’s ESSA plan is “to transform from industrial age practices of providing all students and educators with the same inputs and opportunities to digital-age practices in which all students and educators have access to unique learning experiences based upon their individual needs and aspirations.” This principle provides a strong focus on personalized learning to support every student in finding their own path to success.

The technological gains from RttT and ESSA’s emphasis on personalized learning has positioned North Carolina to make even more significant improvement in student outcomes and further reduce educational gaps. A marriage of innovative — and, at times, technology-based — practice and personalization, competency-based education (CBE) is a logical next step for North Carolina to take to both advance equity and do what is best for students.

In a competency-based learning environment, every student receives the support needed to take control of their own learning, move at their own pace, and demonstrate mastery of knowledge across disciplines. Given North Carolina’s historical investments in technology, infrastructure, and personalized learning, the state is primed to tackle its first steps toward CBE that can enhance equity for students.

To better understand the relationship between CBE and equity, CompetencyWorks released Designing for Equity: Leveraging Competency-Based Education to Ensure All Students Succeed. In the paper, the authors outline that equitable education systems (1) ensure equal outcomes; (2) disrupt institutional inequity; and (3) include and personalize.

Source: Designing for Equity: Leveraging Competency-Based Education to Ensure All Students Success, p. 3

This structure aligns with the following statewide initiatives:

Source: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction
Source: North Carolina State Board of Education

Further, the equitable education system structure and these initiatives align to the definition of CBE that the North Carolina Regional Education Laboratory Southeast Alliance co-created with educators:

As a personalized learning approach, CBE provides a flexible and engaging learning environment in which progression is based on mastery of explicit learning objectives, or competencies, as demonstrated through evidence of student learning, rather than the time spent in a course/topic.

The authors of Designing for Equity make the charge clear: “Our goal has shifted beyond equality to notions of equity and fairness that demand personalization: that we respond to students as individuals and ensure they have what they need to succeed.”

With the pieces in place to move in the direction of CBE, how will we continue to respond in a global pandemic to ensure every child has what they need to succeed? How will our next decade of learning deepen equitable practices across schools and districts? And, most importantly, how will we continue to invest in and advance the work of equity that demands personalization?


 If you have any questions about this article, feel free to reach out to Allison Redden at aredden@rti.org or Kayla Siler at ksiler@rti.org.

Allison Redden (formerly Stewart) works as an education research analyst with RTI International’s Center for Education Services (CES). A former public school educator in the Triangle, Allison participated in several teacher leadership programs in North Carolina, including the Kenan Fellowship and the Education Policy Fellowship Program. She was the Public School Forum’s Beginning Teacher Leadership Network Coordinator for Wake County before moving to Tennessee to pursue her Master of Public Policy at Vanderbilt, specializing in K-12 Education Policy. She is interested in engaging in conversations and actions to advance equity, while navigating the intersections of education, economics, and policy. Redden is a proud product of North Carolina public schools, from Cabarrus County Schools to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Kayla M. Siler has more than 10 years of experience in education policy, strategic planning and project management. Prior to joining RTI in 2016, Ms. Siler held a variety of analyst and project management positions with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI). At NCDPI she supported reform and implementation initiatives related to standards, online assessments, the state accountability model and the statewide instructional improvement system.

Siler’s work at RTI includes supporting schools and districts with the implementation of competency-based education, managing projects with multiple education partners, and conducting program audits to support strategic planning initiatives and continuous program improvement. She is also involved with the Southeast Regional Education Laboratory (REL) Alliance for Measuring Success through Competency-Based Learning.

Competency-Based Education Coronavirus K-12 Perspective