After almost two years of the pandemic, it’s clear that school leaders must seize this historic moment for change. According to a Hart Research poll in May 2021, 91% of parents agree that “this is an opportunity to reimagine public education to meet children’s academic, social, and emotional needs and ensure that all children can thrive.” Additionally, 63% of parents prefer the “whole-child” approach to education that includes emotional and social development; only 37% said they preferred a focus only on teaching basic academics.
We must elevate and engage communities in a future-focused, equitable vision of education that empowers young people, addresses all aspects of student development, and accelerates learning by making it more self-directed, engaging, and relevant. There is great optimism among schools, districts, and communities that we can co-create this type of learning in the future. It starts with community conversations examining the purpose of public education; redefining student success holistically; designing new models to transform learning; creating new pathways and personalized, competency-based education; and making K–12 education better than it was before.
This new learning ecosystem is critical to build student agency, provide personalized pathways, and ensure all students achieve mastery. In The Influence of Teaching Beyond Standardized Test Scores: Engagement, Mindsets, and Agency, Ron Ferguson writes, “Young people with high levels of agency do not respond passively to their circumstances; they tend to seek meaning and act with purpose to achieve the conditions they desire in their own and others’ lives.”
Education innovations from the pandemic include greater use of online and blended learning across K–12. However, our research recognizes how important it is for the technology-enabled delivery models to be organized around structures that support student-centered, competencybased learning.
Interest in K–12 innovations using personalized, competency-based education (CBE) is rapidly growing. In competency-based education, every learner moves ahead based on demonstrating mastery in designated standards, and there is a commitment to supporting each student every day who is “not yet” proficient. Schools use time, staffing, and learning environments differently and with more flexibility. Students build agency and own their learning. Competency-based learning is, at its core, equity-driven and student-centered.
Building a Competency-Based Program
Here are 10 ways to get started leading education innovations supported by evidence-based practices and observations gathered from more than 120 school visits around the United States and the globe:
- Engage communities in a new vision for education. These conversations are taking place across the U.S., with districts and states creating more holistic definitions of student success. “Redefining Students Success: Profile of a Graduate” (bit.ly/3l5wpWI) sets a shared vision for the competencies, knowledge, and skills students need and creates greater coherence for innovations that follow.
- Empower students to own their learning. Build agency, voice, choice, and the ability to act on choices for students. Create a personalized learner profile for each student to monitor and communicate progress on building important knowledge, skills, and dispositions in real time. Be sure to include authentic student voice in co- designing new models at your school.
- Advance competency-based education. The concept behind CBE is simple: Learning is best measured by students demonstrating mastery of content through evidence, rather than the number of hours spent in a classroom. It is a major systemic change to the way we approach school culture, structures, and pedagogy. Brian Stack, principal at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH, and Jonathan Vander Els, director of innovative projects with the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, have created tools and work with K–12 schools to get started with competency- based education.
- Get rid of time constraints. Holding time as the constant produces variable learning outcomes and forces a “ranking and sorting” of students. By shifting to a focus on mastery, every student has the opportunity to reach high levels of deeper learning and is supported to achieve mastery. Pacing guides ensure students are on track while providing flexibility to have more time and extra supports when students need it.
- Focus on equity. As new systems are co-created and implemented with students, parents, and communities, ensure equity strategies are embedded in the work and included in the culture, structures, and innovative pedagogies. Strong relationships and authentic engagement are important in learner- centered cultures that value belonging, identity, and whole-child wellness. Engage authentically with local wisdom to determine what strategies are most effective. Whole-child, personalized learning uses the research on how students learn best and supports culturally sustaining practices.
- Ensure clearly articulated competency-based pathways. By mapping out progressions of important knowledge, skills, and competencies, we can begin to unpack knowledge domains, skills, and competencies into frameworks for learning. In traditional schools, there is great variability in ho teachers determine proficiency and grade students. Mastery-based grading and competency-based assessments communicate the learning in real time and help students know where they stand, take ownership of their learning, and reach mastery.
- Redesign assessments. Assessments should be meaningful to students and provide clear feedback on whether they have achieved mastery or competence. If not, provide immediate feedback to support students. Build capacity for performance assessment, local assessment quality, and educator and leader assessment literacy. Better yet, connect curriculum, learning, and assessment to the graduate profile. Performance assessments include student exhibitions and capstone projects for graduation.
- Create “innovation zones” to increase autonomy. State and district innovation zones clear a path for new school designs, as well as help ensure system leaders stay committed to the work. Innovate with cycles of prototyping, piloting, experimentation, and learning. Innovation zones simultaneously address barriers to structural changes and seek to increase flexibility for educators planning and creating new, learner-centered environments.’
- Modernize professional learning and diversify the teacher workforce. Create opportunities for educators and leaders to experience personalized, competency-based learning approaches. Invest in a “Grow Your Own Educator Program,” a competency-based teacher education program that was employed in Westminster, CO. Rethink how people can enter the teaching field for new roles. Provide competency-based micro-credentials. Define competencies for shifting to student- centered learning environments. Some districts are using a parallel “Profile of an Educator” to create a competency-based pathway for educators to build skills.
- Rethink certifications, micro-credentialing, and mastery transcripts. What does a diploma actually tell us about what a student knows and can do? Consider mastery transcripts. Redefine credits based on competencies and demonstrated mastery, not seat time. Recognize learning inside and outside of school, work-based learning, paid internship programs, online and blended learning, after-school programs, and project-based learning in communities. Explore how all learners (adults and youth) could microcredential their learning from a wide variety of powerful learning experiences.
Why Education Innovation Matters
We have an opportunity to catalyze a “leapfrogging” of our education systems. There is a demand from parents to expand access to innovative learning experiences for every student. The time is ripe to support competency-based pathways to graduation with flexibility in how, where, and when learning happens.
The one-size-fits-all, industrial-age model of K–12 education has deep flaws and was designed to rank and sort kids, not ensure all students succeed. Focusing on time, batching students by age, and moving them through the same content with variable amounts of learning, regardless of what they have mastered, creates unacceptably inequitable outcomes—which the pandemic is exacerbating. New designs are needed to meet student needs.
Invest in training to support innovation and shifts to competency-based systems. The short-term influx of $123 billion in federal relief fund investments into K–12 education should provide a catalyst for investing in future-focused education innovations to better support student-centered learning. By building next-generation learning models now that support anytime, anywhere learning with strong relationships, we can also help soften the blow of unanticipated shifts that require pivots to remote learning and maintain continuity of learning.
For innovations to scale, communities need to work together to fundamentally reexamine the purpose of K–12 education for the long term and create learning ecosystems that put the learner at the center.
Finally, don’t give up! Innovation is a process, not an end. Learning how to innovate is a new skill for many educators and leaders. It requires building new muscles for designing flexible learning environments. We are all learners in co-creating the future. Now is the time to innovate and create new systems based on the core principle that all students can succeed and be ready for the next step in their learning, the workforce, citizenship, and lifelong health and prosperity.
Susan Patrick is the president and CEO of the Aurora Institute, a nonprofit whose mission is to drive the transformation of education systems and accelerate the advancement of breakthrough policies and practices to ensure high-quality learning for all.