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Competency-Based Learning in Middle School

Academic Excellence at Durham Academy

Competency-based learning is an educational approach that focuses on mastering specific skills or knowledge areas defined by a set of rigorous, explicit, transparent expectations outlining the essential knowledge and skills (competencies) within a specific course or subject. Progress is communicated through feedback centered on proficiency or mastery of each skill rather than a numeric or average-based letter grade. It’s based on the premise that every learner has academic areas of strength to celebrate and academic areas of improvement that are identified in terms of those skills. 

Durham Academy builds excellent learners, and excellent learners have strong fundamentals. Agency and accurate self-assessment are also key to excellent learning.

We believe competency-based learning in the Middle School is the most developmentally appropriate way to support the primary goals of Durham Academy’s Strategic Vision:

A Focus on the Fundamentals

Thriving in Middle School and Beyond

We’ve defined the tenets of an exceptional educational experience at Durham Academy through our mission, our Strategic Vision and our portrait of a graduate. They revolve around skills that our students need to be successful in college and in life.

1. An exceptional education that:
  • prepares students for success in college and life
  • encourages students to discover and pursue their intellectual passions
  • helps students develop 21st century skills
2. A rigorous, unique curriculum that:
  • is grounded in relevant, flexible learning 
  • is dynamic, interactive, authentic, and meaningful
  • better leverages the talents and diverse interests of our faculty and students
  • positions DA among the leaders of independent school teaching and learning
3. A learning experience that helps students succeed in college admissions, college and beyond

The foundation of DA’s academic program is built on transfer goals: crucial, discipline-specific skills defined for students in each grade level that they will take beyond their career at DA as they embark on living moral, happy, and productive lives.

A competency-based learning approach complements those goals and prepares students for Upper School with a challenging, rigorous Middle School curriculum that allows for:

  • Mastery of skills and concepts, leading to deeper understanding

  • A shift in focus from the pressure of grade-based performance to a love of learning

  • Flexibility in how students demonstrate proficiency and how teachers assess progress 

  • Preparation for real-world tasks or challenges

  • Increased student engagement through relevant learning and clear connections between effort and progress

  • Personalized pace

Students are at the center of every decision we make and every academic program we build. A competency-based curriculum empowers students to actively participate in improving their skills. A competency-based model of teaching, learning and assessment sets students up for success next week, next year, and for their future. Competency-based learning deepens student-teacher relationships through an ongoing feedback loop, facilitating conversations about how to deepen their learning. Teacher-student connections have always been the beating heart of DA, and competency-based learning gives both teachers and students the vocabulary to talk about goals and progress at this deeply important stage of students’ development.
Jon Meredith, Middle School Director

Competency-Based Learning = Skills Over Scores

Scores summarize the past. Skills build the future.

We build fundamentals by keeping our students’ focus on skills, not scores. As the Middle School prepares our learners to confront the challenges ahead, we’re helping them build a foundation that will support them at the Upper School and beyond. 

In middle school, learning is complex. Students’ journeys to mastering skills and knowledge are far from linear. As every child’s brain develops at its own pace, each student has different strengths to share and challenges to overcome. It’s complicated.

A traditional numeric grade obscures students’ unique academic strengths and weaknesses by lumping everything together into one number. It doesn’t try to communicate precise learning goals or areas for improvement. It includes behavioral rewards like homework completion rates, extra credit or classroom participation that are not related to deep learning. A grade on a traditional report card is usually interpreted as “good” or “bad.” It’s easy.

In contrast, competency-based learning leans into the individual nuance for each student. A student’s proficiency level for each skill is communicated separately with more precision, making their path to progress clear and actionable, so learners can be confident in their strengths and confront weaknesses in ways that push them. This is how durable learning happens. It’s harder — and better.

A traditional report card is a summary of the past. A competency-based report card communicates a strategy for the future.

Comparing Traditional Grade Reports & Competency-Based Learning Reports
It really helps me improve. Instead of just having an A-plus, I’m able to get a lot of feedback, which helps me improve my writing or my history work or whatever I’m learning about.

 — Sixth-Grade CBL Student
This school is just really helping kids discover who they are and really helping them learn without making them feel pressured.

  —Sixth-Grade CBL Student
[CBL] helps me understand where I can improve in a subject by showing improvement — or lack of it — over time and not just an average of all my assessments.

 —Seventh-Grade CBL Student

Strategizing for Success

Infrastructure for Support

DA has invested in support systems that facilitate the Middle School vision of what students need in today’s learning environment. With human resources, time and technology, we are supporting CBL — because it best supports our students.

In addition to the academic leadership team focused on implementation, the Middle School has dedicated support for teachers, families and students as we undergo this transition to competency-based learning.

CBL Timeline
  • 2017–2019: Pre-k-12 Curriculum Alignment Work to identify transfer goals as targets for DA’s academic program.
  • 2017: Middle School teachers attend conferences about competency-based systems.
  • 2019–2021: CBL Task Force researches how CBL principles can support the development of transfer goals in a developmentally appropriate way through a limited pilot program.
  • 2021–2024: CBL initiative begins with eight teachers across five courses and three grade levels in 2021. Grows to 11 teachers across seven courses in 2022-2023 and 13 teachers across seven courses by 2023–2024.
  • 2022–2023: Faculty professional development, curriculum development. Student/family education.
  • December 2023: Pilot of Toddle as the Middle School learning management system.
  • January–May 2024: Middle School CBL training via faculty weekly departmental work, bi-monthly workshops and professional development days. 
  • 2024–2025: Fully implement competency-based learning as the Middle School’s model of teaching, learning and assessment.

I have learned more about both of my children in the last three months with CBL than I have in an entire year before. Most importantly, my kids have also learned more about themselves through personal reflection. My only request would be to keep going and to encourage more of that!

Middle School Parent

Frequently Asked Questions