By Welda Simousek

Being in fourth grade and teaching phonics to first graders, participating in the eighth grade spelling lesson as a fourth grader, being taught in small groups of three to five students from mixed grade levels on particular skills or topics, having assessments on various skills before moving on, moving on to the next skill level when ready (regardless of grade level) — is this competency-based education?


There is an estimate that about 400 one-room schoolhouses still exist around the country, not out of a philosophical need, but of a geographical one.

Well, not exactly: This describes a one-room schoolhouse experience; my one-room schoolhouse experience to be exact. Competency education or competency-based education as it is often called is described as having five basic elements:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

In short, competency education is often described as having learning constant and time as the variable. This is in contrast to today’s age-grade lockstep where the curriculum that is offered to students is dependent upon the grade level the student is currently in, and that grade level is determined by the student’s age. When you “finish a grade level/turn a certain age,” you generally move on to the next school year and grade level, whether you have finished learning all of the curriculum or whether you are ready for curriculum two grade levels above you.

Let’s take a look at each of the five basic elements of competency education and juxtapose it with my one-room schoolhouse experience. First of all, advancing upon demonstrated mastery. Students learn at different rates — period. In the one-room schoolhouse I attended, with grades one through eight all in the same room, being taught by the same teacher, it was almost a matter of survival for the teacher to teach those students who were learning the same concepts or skills together, despite the students being in different grade levels.

During my four years in this one room schoolhouse, I had two different teachers. One did a much better job of this than the other. One teacher, a woman, brought up small groups of students to the front of the room to study skills with her that they were ready to learn, regardless of which grade they were in. You moved on to the next skill group when you were ready, no matter whether that took you one week, one month, or one year. It really wasn’t very important which grade level you were in until you started to approach that final, eighth grade year.

The other teacher, a man, tried to teach us by grade levels, bringing us up to the front of the room when it was time for the third graders, for example, to learn math. Then, he had to proceed to deal with each of us being at different learning levels. This method did not work as smoothly as the other teacher’s and resembled today’s age-grade lockstep method a lot more than competency-based education.

Second, the competencies we were being measured on were concrete and measurable, just as in competency-based education. They were spelled out to us in the classroom, but, unfortunately, they were not defined this way on our report cards which just listed “math, reading, spelling,” etc. So, this wasn’t a perfect competency-based world, but on a daily learning basis, it was much closer to the competency world than the age-grade lockstep world.

Third, we received almost instant feedback on our assessments. Many of them were oral so we knew just where we stood in terms of our learning, right then and there. Others that were written had copious notations on them as to where we went wrong, if we did. The grade that we were given was not the whole point; what and with whom we would be learning the next skill was just as important.

Fourth, in between the times when we were being taught in small groups at the front of the room, we had “seat work” that we did individually. During this time, our teacher met with students individually to help move us forward in our learning, to correct misconceptions, and to help us fill in gaps in learning. The only resources, besides our typical textbooks, that the teacher had to lean on came from a four-shelf classroom library that was changed out every few months by a book mobile. Regardless of our age or grade level, we could utilize any one of these books to help us move along in our learning. None of the books were marked as being only for a certain grade level — or Lexile level.

Fifth, the application and creation of knowledge was probably the weakest link between my one room schoolhouse experience and competency-based education. We did work on some projects, but they were pretty much of the cut-and-dried variety, not pulling upon our creativity to complete them.

I know that not all one-room schoolhouses operate, or operated in the same way as mine did, but the “philosophy” of a one-room schoolhouse is really based around the individual student and the individual student’s needs, where time is the variable and learning is the constant. There is an estimate that about 400 one-room schoolhouses still exist around the country, not out of a philosophical need, but of a geographical one. I can only hope that they abide by the above philosophy. Some states, like New Hampshire, are putting into place some new standards that get rid of the old age-grade/time-based lockstep approach of the Carnegie unit for credit in high schools and pave the way for this one-room schoolhouse “philosophy.”

Maybe it’s time for the school world to come around to an old concept, albeit rephrased as “competency-based education” and move back to the philosophy of each individual student moving ahead when they are ready, rather than when the clock or calendar dictates it.

Welda Simousek is the owner of Welda Consults LLC, an educational consulting company. See
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Issue 18.3 | Winter/Spring 2017

Southeast Education Network

Our Mission: to reinvigorate the spirit of American education