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Aurora Institute

Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency-Based Education

Education Domain Blog

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

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education, Issues in Practice


There is a growing realization that the traditional system design for American K-12 education is failing to adequately prepare students for the future. A strong K-12 public education system is essential for a democracy and civil society to thrive. It is time to build a system on the core principle that all students can succeed and be ready for the next step in their learning, the workforce, and citizenship and for lifelong health and prosperity.

Today, educators are beginning to build new competency-based learning models in which students are actively driving their learning while mastering the knowledge, habits and skills necessary to fulfill their dreams. These new learning models are competency-based, learner-centered, and highly personalized. They hold all students to the same high standards and high expectations, and open the doors to fulfill their potential by providing targeted supports and emphasizing continuous growth. With a focus on competency, high-quality supports and sufficient resources, all students can learn and succeed.

In the traditional one-size-fits-all model of education, schools batch students by age, and move them through the same content and courses at the same pace. Students are ranked and sorted based on variable outcomes, creating “winners” and “losers” and perpetuating patterns of inequality in society. Education systems must transform to align with the needs of learners and the skills and dispositions they will need to succeed beyond secondary school. According to the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD):

“In the past, education was about teaching people something. Now it is about making sure that individuals develop a reliable compass and the navigation skills to find their own way through an increasingly uncertain, volatile and ambiguous world. It will often be the mistakes and failures, when properly understood, that create the context for learning and growth. Today, schools need to prepare students for more rapid economic and social change than ever before, for jobs that have not yet been created, to use technologies that have not yet been invented, and to solve social problems that we do not yet know will arise.”

Even with high school graduation rates at an all-time national high of 82%, 37% of high school graduates are entering college requiring remediation in math and reading – thus, unprepared for the rigor of higher education. Graduates who enter the world of work directly after high school fare no better, with 62% of employers by one account indicating that “high schools aren’t doing enough to prepare their graduates to meet the expectations of the work place.” Students are not fully prepared for civic engagement to ensure a functioning democracy (only 30% of today’s young people believe it is “essential” to live in a country that is governed democratically). With these academic, workforce and civic readiness outcomes, it is clear that it is time to engage in a public dialog with communities and states around what the goal and role of our K-12 education system is. The very purpose of our education system has changed, but its design has not. Policymakers should be asking: are K-12 education systems fit for purpose?

iNACOL and CompetencyWorks released a new report titled, Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education, to explore and reflect on the ideas that state policy needs to address in the long-term to support a transformation to competency-based education systems designed to ensure equity so all students can be truly ready for success. The publication explores some ways that state policy makers could approach tackling threshold concepts as part of a long-game strategy.

Our challenge is to catalyze the creation of a new, transformational theory of change for state policy to work toward over the long term. In doing so, we need to identify the blind spots – the things that we don’t even know that we don’t know – that are standing in the way of a system that is fit for purpose.

Our intent is to push current thinking beyond the assumptions that perpetuate root causes of educational inequity and the structural issues that perpetuate injustice. We are focusing on a strategy for policy to support K-12 systems change over the long haul toward competency-based systems that ensure mastery for all students and equity for all.

This new blog series: Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education aims to inspire new ideas and launch dialogue among communities and state policy leaders.

The next few posts will examine four threshold concepts, which are “core concepts, that once understood, are needed to transform a given subject.”

The four threshold concepts that we will address in this blog series are:

  • Certifying learning;
  • Assessment literacy;
  • Pedagogical innovations based on learning sciences; and
  • Meeting students where they are.

These concepts hold potential to change our perspectives forever and are important to embracing a vision of personalized, competency-based learning. They help us to 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 next few blogs will explore each one of these threshold concepts.

Learn more by through the report, Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education. Stay tuned for a blog series diving deeper into key insights from this paper, and view the action steps state policymakers can take in Current to Future State: Issues and Action Steps for State Policy to Support Personalized, Competency-Based Learning.

Learn more:

Follow us on Twitter: @nacol, @SusanDPatrick, @mariaworthen, @DaleKFrost, @ntruongedu