The Truth about Competency-Based Education

What is “competency-based education” and how would it impact South Carolina students?

Issue at a Glance

  • South Carolina lawmakers are currently considering a bill to allow schools to opt into a competency-based education model.
  • Competency-based education – also called “personalized learning” – allows schools the option to innovate away from an old one-size-fits-all education model to a more flexible, student-centered “open” model.
  • Competency-based education is not mandatory and does not change or deal with standards or curriculum.
  • Competency-based education focuses on what students are learning, not how long they’ve warmed a seat.
  • Competency-based education increases local control, requires parental feedback and creates more choices within the public education system.

Since the time of Ronald Reagan, people have been increasingly concerned with the growing role of the federal government in public education. Most recently, in 2014, the fight against Common Core dominated headlines across the country, including South Carolina.

Common Core represented a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach to education. Thankfully, South Carolina lawmakers voted to remove South Carolina from the federally-funded Common Core “Smarter Balance” test. As we stated at the time, whoever writes the test ultimately controls the standards of what is taught in schools.

That’s why we joined national allies like the Heritage Foundation to oppose Common Core and support South Carolina’s ability to write its own standards and create its own tests. People can differ about whether South Carolina currently has the correct standards, but no one can honestly argue that South Carolina does not control the process to create those standards.

Fast forward to 2018 and questions now being raised about H.4596, a short, straight-forward bill that is currently making its way through the South Carolina Statehouse. H.4596 would allow local schools in South Carolina to opt-into a “competency-based education” model, an idea which some have mistakenly equated with Common Core and its federalized agenda. We commend citizens who are always on the lookout against federal overreach and share their vigilance. Thankfully, competency-based education empowers – not diminishes – local control.

In fact, competency-based education is the exact opposite of Common Core. Instead of treating every child the same, it allows every child the customized opportunity to learn at a flexible pace.

1. Competency-based education organizes the structure of school around the needs of students.

Common Core was about content: what children are required to know. Competency-based education is about how a student’s learning experience is structured. It aims to ensure that students have mastered critical content before being moved on to more advanced material.

Let’s say that Johnny has mastered quadratic equations and Jimmy is still struggling. In a competency-based model, Johnny can move on to the next topic while Jimmy can get additional help. Why does this matter?

Many employers and higher education providers will tell you that far too often today, a high school diploma is barely worth the paper it’s printed on. How is that possible? Our current system for issuing diplomas dates to over a century ago and is based on a “time served” model.

As long as students show up, sit in a seat and don’t flunk the course, they are passed along the conveyor belt in our factory-like system until they graduate … whether or not they can demonstrate that they grasp basic skills. Sadly, far too many – even some of our best and brightest – don’t. A 2017 report found that in South Carolina, nearly 20% of college undergraduates enrolled at two-year schools had to take remedial classes before they were ready for college-level work.

The point of competency-based education is to ensure that a high school diploma means something. That you’ve learned what the people of South Carolina have determined that you need to know to be a successful employee or student; not how long you’ve warmed a seat as you’re shuttled through a one-size-fits-all system.

2. Participation in a competency-based education program is entirely voluntary, supports parental involvement, respects local control and makes no changes to current local authority.

Rather than imposing a top-down, one-size-fits-all mandate on schools, H.4596 would allow schools to opt into a competency-based model. The bill also requires that districts must consult with parents and obtain approval from the local school board to apply for any legislative or regulatory flexibility.

There are different approaches to how a school could implement this model and the bill does not dictate to schools what this must look like (tests, use of technology, etc.). Local schools would fully retain the authority to determine curriculum, and award credits and diplomas.

H.4596 simply gives local school districts who want to innovate away from “one-size-fits all education” the flexibility to do so, while ensuring that they maintain their current level of accountability for student learning.

3. Competency-based education advances the idea of education choice within the traditional public education system.

Allowing public schools to opt into a more flexible education model expands the menu of options that parents have when trying to find the right fit for their child.

Writing for the conservative Heritage Foundation, Lindsey Burke and Vance Fried discuss how competency-based education supports an “open” education system that “dispenses with all constraints that currently box in education: grade levels, seat time, and geographic school assignments, among many other limiting features of the existing system:”

“… an open education system is competency-based and allows learning anytime, anywhere, blending formal school with work experience, apprenticeships, and continuing professional education. Such an open system holds the potential to empower student learners with choice at every level, reduce costs across the board, and foster economic growth.

Competency-based learning stands in stark contrast to the brick-and-mortar factory model of schooling, which, by its very nature, has limitations.”

In summary, H.4596 would not “impose” anything on South Carolina schools. Rather, it gives local schools more flexibility. It gives parents more options. And it gives students the confidence to know that their education has meaningfully prepared them with the skills they need to be successful in school and life.


Palmetto Promise Institute promotes public policies that remove barriers to opportunity and help South Carolinians flourish. By unlocking the full promise of the Palmetto State and her people, South Carolina can lead a state-driven American renaissance.