The Personalized Mastery Approach JOURNEYS

By Scott Vince / April 18, 2014

During early conversations with Carl Sandburg School stakeholders, it was apparent that their approach to improvement was centered on one unifying element—personalized mastery (also known as competency-based education). My knowledge of personalized mastery was extremely limited. How does it work? How is it different than the traditional approach? And how would it benefit improvement efforts,  particularly related to Carl Sandburg’s large achievement gap?

How it Works

One prominent education researcher, Robert Marzano, describes competency-based education as being the loftiest and ultimate form of education. The general idea is that students progress to the next level of their education once they have mastered the content of the previous level. As a recent report from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation points out, this contrasts with the traditional model where students move forward only at the end of a unit or course. Under a competency-based system, time is no longer the most important element. Instead, learning the content is of paramount importance. Students do not move through grade levels based on time (units) and their age. Instead, they move through “a continuum of knowledge or skills based on their demonstrated competence for each subject area” (Marzano, 2013). In other words, the learning happens at each student’s own pace.


Some critics argue that the approach can include too much testing as students may be frequently assessed to determine mastery. Others suggest the approach can result in lowered expectations for some students as they may remain stuck at a certain level and not advance as far or as fast as others. However, as I listened to proponents discuss the details, I began to see the potential benefits of using personalized mastery as an approach to school improvement and a way to tackle the achievement gap at Carl Sandburg.

Because different students take different amounts of time to learn content, it is intuitively logical that the amount of time spent on content should vary based on individual learners. Student X may grasp a particular strand of content quickly, while student Y may need a little more time. A competency based system would ensure that student X is allowed to move on to the next level of content (and not be bored), while student Y would be given the time to ensure proficiency of the previous level (and not be marginalized).

In an effective system of personalized mastery, where solid skills are built from the earliest age, fewer students would be inappropriately “pushed” forward to the next level where they may be ill-prepared and never given the chance to build their foundational knowledge.

The U.S. Department of Education has collected several examples of competency-based education throughout the U.S. See them here.

Will this work at Carl Sandburg? Follow the Journey.


Marzano, R. J. (2013). High Reliability School: Marzano Research Laboratory.

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About the author

Scott Vince

Scott Vince is a Research Associate at WestEd and a Center on School Turnaround staff member. He is on the Journeys content team, and is also a Journeys school facilitator and a blog contributor.

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