Brian M. Stack

Brian M. Stack, MEd, is the principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, New Hampshire. For the past decade, he has also been a member of the research, design, and implementation team for the school district’s nationally recognized K–12 competency-based system.

PLCs and Competency Based Learning: Needed Now More Than Ever!

Alert! Alert! I am about to say something very controversial:

One day in the future we are going to reflect back on “COVID times” and say that the global pandemic of 2020 was not all bad news for schools.

Please hear me out. I don’t want to minimize the tremendous disruption, financial loss, and grief that the pandemic has left all of us with, nor do I want us to forget the many who were sick and of course those who lost their lives. Some were near and dear to my heart. The fact of the matter is, it was this disruption that has caused educators to start to think differently in ways that they never have before. I predict that in the end, the pandemic will be viewed by many as a catalyst for change that will bring about some of the most innovative, student-centered learning models that our profession and our society has yet to see.

For many, the work has already started as educators have had to grapple with teaching and learning under ever-changing conditions during COVID19. Schools with strong professional learning community models have an advantage with future innovations because they have clear alignment and calibration as a school community on what it is students need to know and be able to do, how they will know when students have learned it, and how they will support those with interventions who didn't learn it and how they will extend learning for those who already know it.

The role and the importance of competency based learning (CBL) has emerged as a model that, when supported by PLCs, has the power to bring about major innovations that our students so desperately need right now. This demand for change has only been accelerated by the pandemic. Our world is changing at a fast and furious pace, and when it comes to creating deep and meaningful opportunities for our students, we as educators must take action. According to the Aurora Institute (Levine and Patrick, 2019), competency based learning is based on seven design principles that align well with PLC work:

  • Design Principle 1: Students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning.
  • Design Principle 2: Assessment is a meaningful, positive, and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant, and actionable evidence.
  • Design Principle 3: Students receive timely, differentiated support based upon their individual learning needs.
  • Design Principle 4: Students progress based on evidence of mastery, not seat time.
  • Design Principle 5: Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing.
  • Design Principle 6: Strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of schools and education systems.
  • Design Principle 7: Rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable.

In 2018, I coauthored a book with fellow Solution Tree associate Jonathan G. Vander Els entitled Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency-Based Learning in PLCs at Work (Stack and Vander Els, 2018) to help educators and PLCs understand how they can leverage the CBL model with their PLC to advance their work. One of the book’s primary resources is a self-assessment rubric tool that teams can use to assess where they are in their CBL journey as it relates to the 7 CBL design principles, where they need to go next, how they will get there, and how they will know if they were successful in their efforts.

Jonathan and I have used this tool to help many educators in schools from coast to coast with their shift to competency based learning models. It has provided context for what each of the design principles look like at the initiating, developing, and performing levels in their classrooms and in their schools.

The pandemic has left all of us as educators with many new challenges. How will we meet the needs of each and every learner? How will we overcome equity barriers that have plagued our system and put up roadblocks for our students? How will we handle the learning loss that many are left with as a result of the last fifteen months? How will we deliver a more rigorous, personalized, and student-centered experience? How will we be able to make our educational model more pandemic-proof, so that a future pandemic won’t bring our programs and our classrooms to a screeching halt again? The competency based model can provide a roadmap for a better tomorrow. A new day is dawning for us as educators and our students. Armed with a renewed sense of purpose and a clear direction of where we need to go next, we can be ready for the journey forward. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. Each day, we will refine our practices. We will be learners ourselves. We will stay true to the philosophy so that we can improve in our abilities to use a competency based learning model to best support our students in our collective visions of learning for all, whatever it takes.



Levine, E. and Patrick, S. (2019).  What Is Competency-Based Education? An Updated Definition. Aurora Institute,



Stack, B. and Vander Els, J. (2018)  Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency Based Learning in PLCs at Work.  Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.



No responses yet.