A New Federal Role for Competency Education

Local innovators face an uphill battle

By Lillian Pace

Part One in a three-part series on policy and Competency Based Education

Photo of the word Knowledge and its definitionOne of the greatest strengths of the competency education movement is that it is locally grown. Stagnant national outcomes have encouraged innovators in districts and states across the country to create a new vision for education that emphasizes mastery of critical knowledge and skills over seat time requirements and harmful promotion policies. But despite their early success, local innovators face an uphill battle due to political, cultural, and even financial barriers that make it challenging to scale and sustain this transformative work. While it will require leadership at every level of the system to overcome these barriers, the federal government, in particular, has an important role to play.

Examining the Federal Role

While there are actually no federal barriers to competency education, federal K-12 laws were designed for more traditional systems that organize around time instead of outcomes. Accountability systems must include annual measures that rely, in large part, on how students perform on grade-level tests. While these policies are well-intentioned, they often leave local innovators with little choice but to build two education systems: one aligned to their vision of student success and one to satisfy these federal requirements. This often results in a disruptive reshuffling of students during the last quarter of the school year to ensure preparation for federally-required assessments that provide a very narrow picture of student learning. The federal government is uniquely positioned to help reverse this disconnect. Federal policymakers can provide greater flexibility for K-12 leaders to pilot and evaluate next generation education models. They can prioritize federal resources and technical support for learning models that emphasize personalized pathways to mastery of essential knowledge and skills and they can invest in much-needed research and development to help advance the field. Communities are much more likely to try something new if they know the federal government is a willing partner in the effort.

ESSA: A Big Step Forward

Newton's Cradle in usePassage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in late 2015 marked a big step forward for competency education. Federal policymakers worked hard to craft a law that struck an appropriate balance between local flexibility and necessary federal protections. This pendulum swing in favor of local control has empowered state and local leaders with the opportunity to craft a new vision for education reform. States are engaging in unprecedented conversations now as they draft their plans for implementation of the new federal law. While this opportunity to redesign an education system comes with great promise, states also have significant responsibility to ensure that system provides all students with an opportunity to succeed. Innovation is an important part of the ongoing state conversations thanks to a range of new opportunities in ESSA to advance personalized learning. The law provides states with considerable flexibility to design multiple measure accountability systems that better align to the goals of a personalized learning approach. States also have the opportunity to build better assessment systems, including through a new pilot program that enables the design and evaluation of competency-based assessment systems. And finally, the law gives states the opportunity to think differently about how it prioritizes and distributes many of the federal funding streams for K-12 education. While each of these opportunities is compelling on its own, states will maximize their impact on student success if they develop a comprehensive strategy that aligns all these opportunities behind their own vision for personalized learning.

A New Presidency and the Path Ahead

Boy walking down a pathThe path ahead for competency education is promising, but its success depends heavily on the federal government’s willingness to partner with states, districts, and institutions as they design education systems that put students at the center. Washington, D.C., will undergo its own transformation over the next few months with a new presidential administration and its long list of legislative and executive priorities. This new leadership has an incredible opportunity to embrace competency education and empower the local leaders that are responsible for its success. As an organization that works deeply with policymakers and practitioners who are building personalized learning systems, KnowledgeWorks encourages the new presidential Administration to prioritize the following policy recommendations.

1. Incentivize effective transitions between K–12 and higher education to increase college enrollment and persistence. With only 40 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds enrolling in college, and one-third of those learners placing into remedial coursework, the new Administration must improve the transition between the nation’s K–12 and higher education systems. A federal strategy must remove barriers to college access and create seamless pathways to attainment of a postsecondary credential and meaningful employment.

2. Help states and districts scale K–12 personalized learning systems. The new Administration should partner with the increasing number of state and district leaders who have adopted a vision for personalized learning and have begun the hard work to build student-centered education systems. These leaders can benefit from the flexibility to innovate, the resources to build something new, and national leadership to help them replicate effective strategies at scale.

3. Support personalized learning pathways toward a postsecondary credential by making the federal financial aid system more flexible. A new Administration should modernize the federal financial aid system to reflect the realities of today’s postsecondary learner. Traditional 12-credit-a-semester, full-time enrollment in postsecondary education is no longer the norm as individuals increasingly seek access to postsecondary opportunities as early as middle or high school, while working and raising a family, or later in life as part of a career change. We recommend an overhaul of the Federal financial aid system to ensure it is more flexible, better able to address changing career requirements, and reflective of the nation’s increasing interest in personalized education.

4. Establish a cross-cutting priority for federal grants focused on personalized learning. A new Administration can help states, districts, and other education stakeholders invest in and expand high-quality personalized learning initiatives by establishing a priority for discretionary grant programs focused on personalized learning. An emphasis on personalized learning will ensure federal resources support high-impact strategies with the potential to close achievement gaps and ensure all students succeed.

This next year will be a defining one for the future of competency education. Strong federal leadership combined with deep commitment to a new vision for education reform under ESSA will go a long way toward the adoption of student-centered education systems that emphasize outcomes over time. Failure to mobilize around this opportunity will leave local innovators and students trapped between two worlds. It’s time to let go of the past and reinvent. Our country and our learners deserve progress.

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