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Aurora Institute

A Year in Review: 2021 State Legislative Snapshot of Student-Centered Learning Policy Advancements

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Fred Jones, Jon Alfuth, Ben Erwin

Issue(s): State Policy, Redefine Student Success, Create Pilots and Innovation Zones, Base Learning on Mastery, not Seat Time, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education


Since the beginning of the pandemic, American education systems and structures have been thrown into flux. The pandemic created many unexpected new challenges but it also shined a harsh light on many that far predated the pandemic. Over the past two years, many states have worked to address these challenges by reimagining existing K-12 education systems and structures to ensure that they are redesigned to meet the needs of all student learners. On Wednesday, December 8, 2021, The Aurora Institute, The Education Commission of the States (ECS) and KnowledgeWorks held a joint webinar titled “Year in Review: 2021 State Legislative Snapshot of Student-Centered Learning Policy Advancements” to highlight these state efforts over the past year. This webinar was designed to both reflect on recent programs and to help states chart a path forward as we collectively enter 2022.

Opening Remarks

Fred Jones from the Aurora Institute opened the webinar with a brief introduction and a presentation of key definitions of student-centered learning, personalized learning, and competency-based education. Not only did these terms inform what policies the presenters would highlight, but they helped the audience understand and, possibly, act on critical concepts to shift the field.

State Legislative Trends

Ben Erwin at ECS led off the webinar by discussing how states have made progress in making their education systems more student centered through three types of governmental actions:

  • Kansas, Oregon and Texas have established task forces and study groups to explore changes to state pathways and graduation requirements.
  • Arizona, Nevada and North Dakota have sought to expand flexibilities to better allow schools to explore innovative K-12 education approaches.
  • New Hampshire and South Carolina made changes to their state governance models by providing for Innovation Zones to allow for the expansion of student-centered learning practices.

State Spotlight: Utah’s Competency-Based Education Work

Jon Alfuth at KnowledgeWorks facilitated a deep dive conversation with two state-level policy makers to highlight transformational work to advance student-centered education policy in Utah. Deputy Superintendent Angie Stallings described the work that the state has undertaken since 2015 to empower innovation. This work began with the development of early partnerships, which led to the establishment of a competency-based education framework and a portrait of a graduate. In 2020, the state developed P-20 competencies aligned to those framework elements. In 2021, the state took further steps to ensure that the basis for K-12 education in the state would be grounded in services provided, rather than the time spent in the classroom.

Utah also removed the requirement that schools deliver 990 hours of instruction for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years, and will instead require local education agencies to provide equivalent educational services over the entire 180 day school year. Deputy Superintendent Stallings also spoke briefly on the advancements being made in the state to bring its assessment systems into alignment with Utah’s vision for personalized, competency-based education.

State Spotlight: Washington’s Mastery-Based Learning Collaborative

After hearing from Deputy Superintendent Stallings, Alissa Muller, who serves as the Director of the Mastery-Based Learning Collaborative at the Washington State Board of Education, spoke on Washington’s past and current efforts to advance student-centered learning. Director Muller described the process of creating the state’s mastery-based learning working group through legislation in 2019, and also detailed the state’s vision and how it led to the establishment of the statewide infrastructure needed to support schools and districts as they implement mastery-based learning. This infrastructure, called the Mastery-Based Learning Collaborative, serves as the state’s foundation and includes 18 schools in the founding cohort who will begin to implement mastery-based learning at the building level by the 2023-24 school year.

Various actors in Washington have also worked to create written resources to support schools and districts as they pursue this work. This includes a one-pager on the topic, a rule around how to award mastery-based credits to students, and guidance on competency/mastery crediting all written by the state board of education. The Washington State School Directors’ Association has also created subject-specific model policies and procedures for boards to use to permit mastery-based credit.

Director Muller also spoke to how the state envisions using its profile of a graduate as a bridge between traditional education methods and schools seeking to adopt mastery-based education approaches.

Conclusion: Next Steps for Policy Makers

Fred also closed the webinar with a call to action for state policy makers. Fred shared an overview of the organization’s upcoming state policy recommendations. These focus on actions that policy makers can take to advance student-centered learning policy in 2022 and beyond. These recommendations include the following:

  • Redefining success by developing a profile of a graduate
  • Transforming state funding mechanisms
  • Modernizing and diversifying the educator workforce
  • Supporting new approaches to competency-based teaching and learning
  • Utilizing Innovation Zones to advance mastery-based learning
  • Investing in balanced assessment systems, including performance-based assessments
  • Rethinking accountability to reflect a broader range of approaches to evaluating school and student performance

The challenges surfaced by the pandemic have made it more important than ever that states work to ensure our education systems meet the needs of all students. In 2022, we encourage state policy makers to learn from the actions and strategies outlined above and continue to move their states and the country as a whole toward an education system that is grounded in equity and which seeks to ensure that all students are able to achieve their full potential.

Authors: Fred Jones is Policy Director at the Aurora Institute. Jon Alfuth is Director of State policy at KnowledgeWorks. Ben Erwin is a Policy Researcher at the Education Commission of the States.


Additional Resources

Aurora Institute’s Federal Policy Priorities: Charting a New Path for America’s Learners https://aurora-institute.org/resource/aurora-institutes-federal-policy-priorities/

Future Focused State Policy Actions to Transform K-12 Education https://aurora-institute.org/resource/future-focused-state-policy-actions-to-transform-k-12-education/

Innovation Zones: Policy Flexibility to Reimagine and Modernize K-12 Education Post-COVID-19 https://aurora-institute.org/resource/innovation-zones-policy-flexibility-to-reimagine-and-modernize-k-12-education-post-covid-19/

A Promise for Equitable Futures: Enabling Systems Change to Scale Educational and Economic Mobility Pathways https://aurora-institute.org/resource/a-promise-for-equitable-futures-enabling-systems-change-to-scale-educational-and-economic-mobility-pathways/

Strengthening Systems: How States are Rethinking Human Capital Systems and Technology Infrastructure in the COVID-19 Era https://knowledgeworks.org/resources/strengthening-systems-states-rethinking-human-capital-systems-technology-infrastructure-covid-19/

Supporting Students in Learning: How States are Rethinking Policies to Support Students in the COVID-19 Era https://knowledgeworks.org/resources/supporting-students-learning-policies-covid-19/

Assessments of and for Learning: How States Are Rethinking Accountability and Assessment Policies in the COVID-19 Era https://knowledgeworks.org/resources/assessments-accountability-learning-states-covid-19/

Evidence of Learning: How States are Rethinking Instructional Time and Attendance Policies in the COVID-19 Era https://knowledgeworks.org/resources/evidence-learning-states-instructional-time-attendance-policies/