Competency-based Learning and the Mastery Transcript Project

By Ken DuBois, Editor

Catlin Gabel explores an innovative approach to improve teaching and learning

Educators at Catlin Gabel have long supported the idea of “visible teaching and visible learning,” where students have a clear understanding of what teachers are setting out to teach, and teachers can see how students have constructed their knowledge and understanding. Now school leaders are exploring ways to take this approach further by introducing a competency-based education framework in the Catlin Gabel Upper School.

At the core of competency-based learning are values embraced by Catlin Gabel since its very beginnings: putting the student at the center of the educational experience, giving them agency and independence in their learning, and preparing them with the skills to be a lifelong learner. Within this framework, students work with teachers to establish an educational path, and teachers guide students in developing the skills they need to advance their learning. Together they establish learning outcomes, which are focused less on content retained, and more on what a student should be able to do as result of achieving that outcome.

“Competency-based learning is an emerging trend in education and growing dramatically,” says Head of Upper School Aline Garcia-Rubio ’93, noting that schools, districts and even state educational systems have adopted the model. “This framework is already improving teaching and learning in the United States, and we want to be sure that we are a part of anything that is about to transform the way learners learn and teachers teach.” 

Adopting the competency-based model poses a challenge as well: Beyond letter grades and scores, how do we share with external audiences the exceptional skills our students have developed, and their readiness to succeed in college and beyond?

School leaders acknowledge that, in redesigning education for the future, there must be a corresponding change in the way students’ accomplishments and growth are communicated. To that end, Catlin Gabel has been involved for the past three years in the Mastery Transcript Consortium, a national effort to redesign the high school transcript to show not only a student’s academic excellence but their demonstrated skills and competencies. Along with Catlin Gabel, over 200 of the nation’s top schools are involved.

“Every one of our students is unique with special talents and interests,” notes Head of School Tim Bazemore. “But the current transcript reduces every student’s rich, meaningful experience to a single page—their entire educational journey leading to this narrow, reductive list of courses, grades, credits, and standardized test scores. We can do better.”

In advancing the Mastery Transcript concept, Tim and other members of the consortium have engaged in conversations with college counselors, college admissions officers, educational experts, college deans, and policy makers at a variety of colleges and universities, and they are receptive to the idea. They have signaled that a redesigned transcript would not create a disadvantage; graduates of Catlin Gabel and other consortium schools will continue to be among the most desirable college applicants in the nation.

Aline notes that there are three factors that will define when and if the school moves to this framework in its totality: Teachers are ready to work within this model; school leaders are confident that students benefit and understand how it works; and there is certainty that students will not be disadvantaged in their college application process. “We are very pragmatic,” she says, “and we are flexibly and slowly assessing what works—we’re not experimenting. We are invested in ensuring our students success, not only in the college admission process, but in their learning trajectory at Catlin Gabel.”