book coverAs explained here and here, my book,  Reinventing Crediting, will be published September 18, and this month I’m previewing the book by sharing a set of excerpts from the book.   By contract, I’m restricted to sharing only a total of 5000 words here on the blog, ten percent of the book as a whole.  

Here, I offer an excerpt from one of my favorite chapters, Chapter 6, entitled “Learning from Experience:  Case Studies of Competency-Based Learning Transformation.”  In this chapter, I provide case studies of transformation– competed in some cases, recently undertaken in others–  for seven schools and school systems. After these seven profiles, I conclude the chapter with seven key insights for educators preparing to, or already immersed in, these change efforts. 

In the excerpt that follows, I share two of the shorter (due to my contract limitations) case studies, and four of the seven themes I’ve identified as especially important in this work.  The five other case studies in the book, not included here, come from the Putney School (VT), Christchurch School (VA), New Zealand,  Lindsay Unified School District (CA), and School Year Abroad working with Global Online Academy. 

Leading schools and school systems through this competency-based  crediting and transcript transformation won’t be easy. Some educational leaders may find this project the largest and longest exercise of substantial instructional leadership in their entire careers; we can expect and hope that it is also their most consequential and proudest accomplishment.   Fortunately, a number of schools and systems have begun this work, and their experiences provide illuminating lessons for the work.  

Note that these short case studies are not limited to new crediting and transcript models alone, but look more widely at examples of both competency-based education and competency-based crediting shifts. 

In Alaska, a remarkable story of educational transformation comes from a school district that is among the very largest districts in the nation in area, nearly the size of the state of Virginia, yet serves an enrollment of only about 500 students.  These events are chronicled in the fascinating book, Delivering the Promise.  Alaska’s Chugach School District, in 1994, was a failing district in nearly every statistic one could imagine; in the previous twenty years only a single graduate had enrolled in college.   Ninety percent of students were below grade level in every assessed area. That year, new leadership arrived, and the transformation began. (DeLorenzo, 2009)

51wJSle2gwLAll previous incremental efforts to improve performance had gone nowhere.  New Superintendent Roger Sampson and new Assistant Superintendent Rich DeLorenzo determined that “change had to happen at the system level.”  They didn’t know what the change would entail, but they did know they needed the kind of people who could handle the challenge, and so they set out to hire people “who were problem-solvers, who were resilient, and who had a moral purpose to serve students.” (DeLorenzo, 2009)

Stakeholders were engaged, particularly the business community, who were asked to define as specifically as possible their concerns and needs from the district; the faculty, to whom “the brutal facts” were fully addressed;  and parents, with whom real relationships were developed for the first time. DeLorenzo, deeply curious and a fan of educational research, read widely in Hunter, Maslow, Deming, and Bloom, and brought that research to the work at hand     In 1996, a new vision was declared that included “Basic Skills; School to Life Transition; personal, social, and character development; meeting the individual needs of students; and technology.” The vision, though, was relatively the easy part; the next task was creating a set of detailed standards, from scratch, in ten domains: math, reading, science, social studies, technology, service learning, career development, cultural awareness, and personal/social development. (DeLorenzo, 2009)

For each area, they determined graduate proficiency levels, backward-mapped developmental levels, and began to design aligned assessments for each level.   As they did all this hard work, the energetic DeLorenzo encountered educational research expert Robert Marzano’s thoughts on a standards-based grading model in which students only progressed upon mastery of each standard.  Marzano cautioned that this model “is very difficult to implement because of the massive changes requires in scheduling, reporting, and resource association. It is for this reason that no school or district has seriously attempted to implement this model.”  DeLorenzo happily accepted the challenge. After a half-hearted attempt to manage dual report card systems, letter grades were dropped over some objections, a waiver was sought and received from the state for ending Carnegie unit requirements, and students could only progress and graduate upon demonstrated competency in all ten standards. (DeLorenzo, 2009)

Success wasn’t immediate.  Chugach leadership encountered two major obstacles in their most immediate constituencies, students and parents.  Students expressed enormous resentment at the new expectations and the higher standards, and the leadership realized that, beyond an initial meeting or two, they really hadn’t engaged students in any significant way.   Redoubling their efforts, they committed themselves to a great deal of listening and explanation to ensure students understood the goals and the structure of the new arrangement. No compromises were made in expectations, but students were given much greater guidance on what they needed to do to meet the new requirements.   Some parents had a different concern: without grades, how could they know how their children were performing? Once the assessments were completed and implemented, “parents realized that students would have to prove that they knew the standards” and those concerns thus alleviated.   (DeLorenzo, 2009)

The results of this transformation were genuinely spectacular.   Reading scores moved from the bottom quartile to the 72nd percentile nationally; participation in college testing went from 0 to 70%; and the district was awarded the national Malcolm Baldrige award for organizational excellence.  (DeLorenzo, 2009)


In California’s Bay Area, the Nueva School, an independent high school in the San Francisco Bay Area, has used competency-based assessments since its secondary school launched in 2014.   Now, it is working toward implementing a mastery transcript and are pushing the project forward through professional development and learning, competency development and review, student engagement, and careful anticipation of obstacles.   As they do, they are working to “revise and improve both the standards, the practice of assessing them, and the architecture of developing a course,” according to school administrator Mike Peller. (Peller, 2018)

The school has a working group undertaking an ongoing process to develop their competencies, considering questions such as 

“(1) What do they say about the school’s values? (Do they reflect the school’s values?) 

(2) Are they measurable? 

(3) Do they transfer across disciplines? 

(4) Are they relevant for the needs of the 21st century?” (Peller, 2018)  


One focal point is whether the competencies they are considering represent the proper holistic balance, and Peller emphasizes that they take seriously “the research on the importance of non-cognitive skills.”    As they proceed to determine mastery credits for the competencies, they are also preparing “specific evaluation criteria” for each. (Peller, 2018)

Rising 12th graders are invited “to apply for the opportunity to co-create their transcript,” a key step in their engagement with the process.  Teachers have also been also asked to identify the pains and gains of the process for both students and teachers, and leadership is using that input to plan accordingly.  (Peller, 2018)

Seven themes stand out most prominently from these case studies [four of which are provided here.]

  1. Adult Inquiry, Learning, and Research. In many of the narratives above, the transformative design was inspired and deeply informed by educators who were curious, widely read, and strongly networked with other educators.   This kind of transformation is extraordinarily complex, but fortunately, there is a lot of literature and many exemplars to engage with and learn from. Take the time to educate your community widely and deeply in what this all means and how it works before and as you proceed. 
  2. Student Learning and Students at the Center.  Educators frequently parrot the sentiment that it’s all about the students, but the expression sometimes becomes the substitute for the reality.  At the startup of this work, firmly establish what are the needs and interests of students in this fast-changing world. Do so in a process that includes researching the changing nature of work and higher education, and do so with surveys or focus groups of young alumni and current students.   Distill those needs and interests into a short but strong statement that can be regularly referred to. Consider as a planning team: can students be team members? How often can we tap student voice, and engage students as co-creators and prototypers
  3. Collaboration not Isolation. Whatever the size of your organization, don’t do this work alone.   Seek out co-conspirators widely from your network of collegial schools and districts.    Co-create together, pilot and prototype independently, convene again to compare notes.  
  4. Patience.   In examples from as large as the nation of New Zealand to as small as a single small independent school in Vermont, educators are reporting this to be as much as a ten year or more process.    Don’t hurry it.



DeLorenzo, R. A. (2009). Delivering on the promise: The education revolution. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Peller, M. (2018, June 10). On Nueva and the Mastery Transcript. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from