Now is the time: State Flexibility to Implement Competency Education

Emphasizing critical knowledge for all students

By Matt Williams

This is part two in a three-part series on Policy and Competency-Based Education

The ability for states to compete — and for communities to attract growth industries and create jobs — demands a fresh approach to public education. The one-size-fits-all philosophy of our past and too much of our present doesn’t ensure our future economic and democratic success. Competency education emphasizes student mastery over time, ensuring that every student demonstrates critical knowledge and skills before advancement. To scale this practice, State Departments of Education, Legislatures, and Boards of Education have a significant opportunity to foster the development of competency-based education systems and scale them. By enacting state policies or taking advantage of flexibilities afforded through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states are in the driver’s seat for competency education. States have an unprecedented opportunity to connect state policy drivers to federal flexibility opportunities through ESSA to play a leading role in transforming the nation’s education system.

Defining Competency Education in Statue

Definitional language is essential to the ongoing success of competency education. States should establish a clear definition in statue to ensure a supportive environment. Simply put, strong definitional language leads to quality implementation which leads to sustainability and scalability. Many education leaders define competency education by the following elements:

1. Students advance upon mastery, not seat time.

2. Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.

3. Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.

4. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.

5. Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

By integrating all five elements, high-quality competency education ensures each student graduates with the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in college and career.

Supporting school districts through pilot opportunities

States have an important role to play in providing districts with the policy flexibility to scale personalized learning environments. States may approach this in different ways, depending on the context in each state and the resources available. Potential policy structures could include a state grant program, a state waiver process, or a state pilot program. One of the most effective approaches to scale is for states to create structured, competency-based pilots. Many states are moving in this direction, including Idaho, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Utah. Pilots provide structure, an opportunity to prove concept, and refine practice. Through a pilot, districts should have the opportunity to apply for increased flexibility in order to implement the conditions required to scale personalized learning. Areas of flexibility should address curriculum and instruction, assessment and student supports, professional and leadership development, technology and data, and learning environments and partnerships. Competency-based pilots should ensure quality and replicability and thus districts should address the following elements in their respective plans:

1. Focus on high-quality implementation of competency-based approaches that emphasize mastery while closing achievement gaps between subpopulations of students.

2. Administer a balanced system of summative, interim, performance, and formative assessments that measure student mastery of academic knowledge and social and emotional competencies.

3. Build capacity of the state and districts to continuously improve competency-based approaches, identifying what works and refining strategies to maximize success.

4. Implement a personalized and adaptive system of learning and supports to close achievement gaps and ensure all students remain on pace to graduation.

By providing supports and incentives, states can help ensure high-quality implementation of personalized learning models. By evaluating what works and doesn’t for each district, states can refine their supports for districts and calibrate towards scaling competency education.

Aligning local competency education efforts to ESSA

ESSA marks an important turning point in federal education policy. After fifteen years of a strong federal presence under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, Congress decided to give states significant flexibility in how they design their education systems. While this flexibility presents states with an unprecedented opportunity to transform their approach to teaching and learning, it also has the potential to jeopardize success if implementation is not high quality. States must be thoughtful in how they design education systems that align accountability, school improvement, assessment, educator workforce, and extended learning opportunity policies to create a cohesive system that prepares all students for success from cradle to career. This aligned system, established in partnership with districts, communities, and leaders across sectors, should ensure that every student benefits from a personalized education where instruction and supports are aligned to individual interests and needs. Fortunately, ESSA provides several high-leverage opportunities to advance a vision for personalized learning throughout each major element of the education system.  For example, states should do the following:

1. Include personalized learning indicators. Incorporate a selection of personalized learning indicators in the state’s accountability system to incentivize adoption of personalized learning strategies.

2. Emphasize growth to proficiency. States should place substantial weight on growth measures to ensure that stakeholders can identify exactly where a student is in his or her learning trajectory and set rigorous goals to ensure each student progresses at a rate of growth that will ensure mastery of K-12 standards and aligned competencies by high school graduation.

3. Break summative annual assessments into smaller, more frequent assessments administered throughout the year. This will enable students to demonstrate mastery when ready and provide stakeholders with more timely feedback to make necessary improvements to maximize performance.

4. Use computer adaptive assessments for formative, interim, and summative assessments to identify where each student is in his or her learning trajectory and align customized supports. This will help stakeholders better identify student learning needs and develop a plan to ensure students master standards (and aligned competencies as applicable) at a sufficient rate of growth toward proficiency.

5. Ensure assessments provide evidence of student mastery of social and emotional competencies to ensure students are ready for success in college and career. States should integrate this information into their accountability systems and align high-quality supports and interventions accordingly.

States have a golden opportunity to drive change for their districts, schools, educators, and most importantly students. The flexibilities within ESSA will allow states time to create supportive, responsive and nimble systems of education, with competency as the foundation. Now is the time for state leaders to take advantage of these flexibilities. Create the system that the students in your state deserve. Create the system that will transform your state educationally and economically. Create the system that your educators want to teach in, be creative in, and develop in. Go forth and be bold, be creative, and grasp this opportunity.

*View Part 1 of the three-part series on Policy and Competency-Based Education - A New Federal Role for Competency Education 

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