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10 Local Conditions Needed to Scale Competency Education

The districts to watch

By Jesse Moyer

This is part three of a three-part series

Across the country, school districts, principals, and teachers are working to increase graduation rates and improve academic outcomes, while closing achievement gaps and fill an increasingly prevalent jobs skills gap. Districts have a unique opportunity to forge a new path to personalized learning. With competency education, district leaders can help ensure all students are prepared for success after high school graduation.

Building the right environment and learning from success

While federal and state policymakers can help build supportive policy environments for competency education, districts are closest to the schools, students, and educators. Districts have the opportunity to set the vision for personalized learning while creating a culture that is supportive of building leadership and teachers as they work to pursue this vision.

To build and scale competency-based learning environments, the right conditions are needed. While each community is unique, the conditions for success are applicable across unique environments. This proves true through the research on which KnowledgeWorks has focused throughout the past few years. As an organization that believes research and policy must be grounded in best practice, we’ve talked with teachers, principals and district leaders throughout the country. Through these conversations, we’ve aimed to understand better what conditions or environments are necessary to successfully implement and scale competency-based education at a district level.

The 10 District Conditions for Scaling Personalized Learning

From this research came our District Conditions for Scaling Personalized Learning, a list of conditions that, when implemented, will allow districts to scale personalized learning and help every student thrive.

There are bright spots for personalized learning across the country, some of which we will highlight with each condition below.

1. Curriculum: Curriculum must be aligned to the district’s vision for teaching and learning, and it should be reviewed regularly to ensure alignment. Learning targets included should be consistent and easily understood for every student, although the ways in which students meet these targets may differ in order to provide a personalized learning experience for each student. Students should be able to set personal goals, and then educators can help foster engagement. Spirit Lake, Iowa, and Lawrence Township, Indiana, are focusing on multiple pathways and community-level partnerships that align to the curriculum, allowing students to follow areas they are passionate about, explore new topics or career paths, gain post-secondary credit at local higher education institutions and get on-the-job training through internships.

2. Instruction: Having effective instructional practices go hand-in-hand with having a flexible and learner-centered curriculum. Instruction must be rigorous and relevant to students’ needs and interests. This will also help teach students how to learn, shifting from a teacher-led to student-led instructional model.

While districts should set the vision and the desired outcomes for a competency-based system, details about specific instructional strategies should be left to schools. In Bartholomew County, Indiana, and Kettle Moraine, Wisconsin, the district clears barriers to give schools space to determine instructional details that align with the overall vision.

3. Comprehensive Assessment System: Each district should implement a comprehensive assessment system that is aligned with the district’s vision for teaching and learning. Assessments should include formative, interim, and summative assessments. Instant feedback from ongoing embedded assessments should be used to monitor student progress and adjust day-to-day learning activities.

Napa Valley Unified School District (NVUSD) in California is focused on implementing district-wide, technology-infused teaching and learning with an expressed focus on 21st-centry skills. With that approach, the district focused on bringing coherence to the system, which led them to focus on common data and a gradebook that blends content and skills. Additionally, NVUSD implemented digital portfolios that aligned with what students need to achieve.

4. Learning Environments: Districts should cultivate in- and out-of-school learning environments that support high expectations for all students while fostering a culture of trust, support, equity, and inclusiveness.

Flexibility and malleability are key components of learning environments for competency-based learning. It’s important to create space that can accommodate collaborative time, individual learning time and presentation time. In Bartholomew County, Indiana, the district built Columbus Signature Academy