Personalized Learning – Part 4: Why Competency-Based Learning Works at Thurgood Marshall Academy

Written by Meghan Casey, Policy Research & Advocacy Associate | 4 years ago

It takes a lot to create a personalized learning system at any school, but many schools have figured out how to do it well. One of those schools is Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, DC. There, students move through their courses only upon demonstrating mastery. This model is known as “competency-based” education. At Thurgood Marshall, this model has been implemented in two subjects and the school is working toward full implementation.

So how do you create a good system of personalized learning? At Thurgood Marshall, there is no shortage of innovation and dedication when it comes to ensuring that this model brings success to students. Here are a few ways Thurgood Marshall has made their competency-based program work:

  1. Openness to a new approach

Before any system can be changed or a new one implemented, there needs to be an acknowledgment that change is needed and there must also be buy-in from all those involved. At Thurgood Marshall, the educators came to acknowledge that the traditional seat-time and chronological pacing system was not working for students. Only then could the school move beyond it to create a competency-based system.

To start, teachers had to decide on what matters most to them when it comes to student learning. The teachers unanimously agreed that skill-based competencies are what they want their students to leave school with. Therefore, a skill- and competency-based system would work for them.

Then, teachers had to accept the idea that “mastery” of these competencies is a fluid concept. Students may not be ready to demonstrate mastery of a concept one week, but may be ready by the next. Therefore, teachers agreed that students who failed to demonstrate mastery would be allowed to receive tutoring and then retest in that area.

  1. Credit recovery

In addition to re-testing in a subject, students also have the opportunity to recover credits they failed to earn. At Thurgood Marshall, students can do this on a quarterly basis. When a student does not meet the requirements in a course for one quarter and therefore cannot receive credit for that quarter, credit recovery allows them to revisit the material that they did not master and retest their mastery in that area, thereby earning the credit. For example, if a student needs to receive a score of 80% in each skill to receive credit and move on, the student can revisit the skills in which he fell short, demonstrate 80% mastery, and then receive credit for that quarter.

However, students are not expected to do this alone. Instead, students attend classes after school to receive additional instruction in the areas they still need to master. Afterschool instruction uses a blended learning model. Students receive instruction from a teacher and also use online instruction and modules to achieve mastery.  Only after receiving this additional time are they able to retest themselves on the needed skills.

This model does not consider homework assignments, participation rates, or attendance as part of its grading. Instead, it focuses on the skills themselves and ensures that students are demonstrating mastery on the skills most critical for future success.

  1. Flexibility in pacing

Thurgood Marshall acknowledges that students have strengths and challenges. Students might be strong in one subject while needing remediation in another. For this reason, at Thurgood Marshall, students can participate in courses at the level most appropriate for them. For example, a student can enroll in an accelerated history class while taking an introductory-level math course. This model is beneficial to all students by allowing them to move at their own individual pace and utilize their strengths while also addressing their challenges.

  1. Use of data

Determining the appropriate course level and placement for students in a way that pushes them to meet their potential and also addresses their challenges can be difficult. One way that Thurgood Marshall makes this determination is by using data. Data is an unbiased way to paint a picture of student performance, strengths, and challenges. Many students are bright and can succeed in a fast-paced, challenging course, but their grades may not always reflect their intelligence if they fail to turn in homework or participate in class. By using data on performance assessments to make these determinations, students are sure to be placed in the class level where they will learn the most.

  1. Creative partnerships

Thurgood Marshall attributes some of the success of its students to the time that students and teachers dedicate after school to continued learning and mastery. Thurgood Marshall provides an afterschool homework help program run by teachers and outside tutors. To find tutors who would be best-suited to help high school students learn math and science, Thurgood Marshall turned to its local community. Located near a Coast Guard base, Thurgood Marshall recruited engineers who were interested in getting involved with local students. Now, afterschool, these engineers participate in a homework help program and provide tutoring to Thurgood Marshall students.


Thurgood Marshall Academy is a true example of how innovation, flexibility, and high standards are key to successful personalized learning. With dedicated teachers, motivated students, and supportive partners, personalized learning can become the key to success for many students.


Next in the series: Personalized Learning – Part 5: How Much Do Parents Know about Personalized Learning?

Previously in the series: Personalized Learning – Part 3: Four Myths and Facts