Skip to content
Aurora Institute

CompetencyWorks Releases New Policy Report, Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Susan Patrick, Dale Frost, Maria Worthen, Natalie Truong

Issue(s): Issues in Practice

There is a need to approach state policy with a long view, to build a vision toward the future with coherent, student-centered systems, and to cultivate ownership across the state and in communities for the transformation to competency-based education.

CompetencyWorks released a new policy report titled, Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education, a publication that explores ideas that state policy needs to address in the long-term to support transformation to competency-based education systems.

Personalized, competency-based education systems, designed to ensure equity, hold promise to prepare all students for success in college, career and civic life. Today, educators are beginning to build new competency-based learning models in which students actively engage in their learning while mastering the habits and skills necessary to fulfill their dreams. They hold all students to the same high standards, provide targeted supports, and emphasize continuous growth toward successful outcomes. With a focus on mastery, high-quality supports and sufficient resources, all students can learn and succeed.

This report is a thought leadership piece to examine the necessary concepts for transformational change to competency education in the long term and introduces ‘threshold concepts.’ Threshold concepts are “core concepts, that once understood, are needed to transform a given subject.” They help us think differently about what is possible in an equitable future education system where all students succeed, and how to address deep-seated systems design flaws across K-12 education.

The four threshold concepts that are introduced and explored include:

  • Certifying learning: Conversations in policy in the United States around what students need to be prepared are happening around standards and graduation requirements; however, they are based on limited definitions of success centered around seat time and passing grades in basic content skills. States can begin to engage districts and communities around what students need to master for true preparedness, and more holistic, learner-centered, competency-based learning models that help students gain the knowledge and skills they need to thrive after high school graduation.
  • Assessment literacy: Assessment literacy is important throughout the system to understand the roles that different types of assessments play in student learning, how assessment and moderation are used to comparatively and fairly judge student mastery, and how the information generated by assessments can be used toward a cycle of continuous improvement in teaching and learning. Significant capacity for assessment literacy is needed to advance new competency-based approaches and address tough issues in our current system.
  • Pedagogical innovations based on learning sciences: The learning sciences are an important reference point in designing instructional models for equity where all students can succeed. Learning sciences study how students learn best, and what feeds intrinsic motivation and the experience of personal success. A school redesign informed by learning sciences puts student success at its center. It incorporates youth development theory, culturally responsive teaching and evidence-based approaches.   
  • Meeting students where they are: Meeting students where they are requires a true fundamental shift of the learning environment to become learner-centered and to be organized around mastery-based learning progressions across a continuum over time. And, most importantly, competency-based systems require knowing where every student is academically and holistically and then making sure each student receives the instruction and support they need to build confidence, lifelong learning habits, knowledge, skills and competencies to be successful.

Along with discussing the threshold concepts, the report introduces issues to tackle, which are ideas that state policymakers could be thinking about as part of a long game for transformation to student-centered learning. The report presents some specific examples from policy, with the caveat that different approaches work best in different contexts, and that true, broad application of these concepts in policy will only become possible if state policymakers begin to think long term.

Creating policies that are student-centered and are fit for the purpose of an education system in which every student can succeed requires us to challenge commonly-held assumptions about what learning “should” look like. Continuously improving on the goals of the education system, including the role of teachers and students, the use of time, the purpose and nature of assessments, the allocation of resources, learning model designs and the role of schools within the broader context of the community, is necessary to achieve lasting change. To do this, state policy leaders will need to engage diverse stakeholders in meaningful ways to build a shared vision and set goals for student success and education systems.

The imperative for our education system has changed in the contemporary context, but its design has not. What should policymakers be asking? Approaching policy with a long view is needed to build a vision toward the future of education. The report is meant to catalyze a conversation on whether our education system is designed for today’s needs and accelerate the shift toward designing a competency-based education system that is holistic and ensures mastery for every student to thrive.

This report will provide a strong foundation for states to develop a policy strategy for the actions that will be necessary to reach the long term goals.

Download the full report, Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education, here.

Learn more: