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Aurora Institute

Five State Policy Recommendations for Governors: Supporting Innovation in Education for the Future Workforce

Education Domain Blog


Several times per year, governors and their state teams meet to discuss critical issues for state policy. On October 16 – 18, 2019, the National Governors Association is convening Governors in Chicago to discuss issues around the future of education, training, and the future of work in a convening titled, “Future Workforce Now: State Policy Forum for Action.”

Questions include: What can states do to prepare for a rapidly changing future? How are governors positioned to enact meaningful policy change in their states? What might be some opportunities and barriers to doing so?

We are encouraging state public policy leaders to think bigger. We are asking them to consider what it would take to backward design from desired outcomes for the future of education and the future of work. What is required now to create a future in which every student is successful, living a meaningful, prosperous, healthy life, engaging in lifelong learning opportunities, and contributing to their communities toward an open, just, and thriving democratic society?

When asked to share five state policy recommendations and ideas that focus on supporting innovations across the spectrum of education and employment needs for the future, we provided some tangible ideas with examples from bellwether states taking the first steps to create competency-based systems. That is, ensuring all youth have educational opportunities and master the knowledge and skills they will need for future success—competency development. Here’s what we’re thinking about.

Recommendation 1: Align Competency-Based Pathways Across K-12, Higher Education, Career/Technical Education, and Workforce/Employment

Governors have an important role to play in leading the transformation of education and workforce systems. There is an opportunity to target funding within the reauthorized Perkins Career and Technical Education Act to encourage alignment of programs with personalized pathways and competency-based approaches across K-12, higher education, career/technical education, and the workforce. Governors can convene state leaders over siloed education and workforce agencies to rethink success along a lifelong learning continuum that encompasses early learning, K-12 education, career education, higher education, and the workforce. Too many high school graduates are not prepared for college or careers. How might systems be realigned for competency-based pathways? How might degrees focus on mastery-based credentialing and licensure? This requires a move away from seat-time and shift toward a long-term focus on building the knowledge and skills students need to succeed. Several states have established K-12 graduate profiles that articulate a shared vision for student success and drive toward coherence in statewide education systems, with governors leading alignment across agencies and constituencies.

  • Alabama is conceptually working on early stage planning for developing a “continuous learning system” with competency-based pathways in K-12 education, career technical education, higher education, and the workforce. By developing in-demand career pathways that align workforce development programs around the attainment of valuable credentials, postsecondary graduation credit, and work-based learning experience; Alabama aims to add 500,000 skilled workers to the workforce by 2025; and surpassing the labor force participation rate national average. This continuous learning system will have competency-based learning and assessments to credential the development of knowledge and skills needed for credentials and micro-credentials to open pathways. This is important for youth and underskilled adults who are underemployed to prepare them for a rapidly changing workforce. This will require convening education agencies and employment boards statewide to set a new vision and articulate competency-based pathways for earning credentials. It will braid Alabama’s federal education and workforce development funding streams to support in-demand career pathways, steward the development of the Alabama Terminal for Linking and Analyzing Statistics (ATLAS) on Career Pathways, and develop the Alabama Industry-Recognized and Registered Apprenticeship (AIRRAP) program.
  • Virginia is taking a comprehensive and coherent approach to transforming education, using the Profile of a Virginia Graduate as a powerful driver of transformation of assessment and teaching. Local pilots and professional learning networks build educator capacity. HB 895 of 2016 required the state to create the Profile of a Virginia Graduate. The bill requires that for the Class of 2022, each graduate take an AP, Honors or IB course or complete an industry certification. In November 2017, the Virginia State Board of Education approved revised Standards of Accreditation that included graduation requirements for the Class of 2022. These board regulations (8VAC20-131-51) go beyond the requirements of HB 895 and require all graduates to “acquire and demonstrate foundational skills in critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, communication, and citizenship in accordance with the Profile of a Virginia Graduate.”

Recommendation 2: Create Innovation Zones

Innovation zones are created in state policy to offer school districts “space to innovate” with district schools to develop new models and offer more personalized approaches and competency-based pathways for learning in K-12 education. Innovation zones allow districts to apply for and request waivers or exemptions from outdated regulations and statutes to support implementing modern learning environments. By focusing on encouraging innovation, rather than just “compliance” with what might be outdated policies that serve as barriers, innovation zones are a way for state leaders to enable innovation and support districts in identifying outdated state policies and regulations that impede educators from modernizing learning. Innovation zones also help to change the relationship between school districts and state departments of education from one based largely on compliance to one involving support of school districts focused on building their capacity. Innovation zones in some states are also known as “districts of innovation” or “schools of innovation.”

  • Kentucky passed HB 37 in 2012, creating the Districts of Innovation. Some of the policies that were waived for the innovation zones include seat-time policies, the average daily attendance calculation, and inaccessibility to internships or learning opportunities in communities, afterschool programs, and outside of school walls. Currently, 10 Districts of Innovation are approved in Kentucky.
  • Colorado created the Innovative Schools Act through a 2008 Senate Bill, SB 08-130. Upon designation of a district of innovation, the Colorado State School Board may waive any statutes or rules specified in a school district’s innovation plan. Also, Colorado provides additional funding and flexibility to school districts through Student-Centered Pilot Accountability Systems to provide grants to design new accountability systems.

Recommendation 3: Launch Competency-based Task Forces

State policymakers can provide thought leadership in their states by fostering dialog between policymakers, stakeholders, and communities across the state and establishing a formal statewide task force for competency-based education (CBE). A CBE task force brings together a group of experts and stakeholders to examine the issue in-depth, to consider needs in policy and practice, and to provide recommendations and next steps in a state. CBE task forces offer a future-focused approach by providing a safe space to identify barriers, needs, and consider options to best enable competency-based pathways.

  • In Iowa, HF365 created a Competency-Based Education Task Force. The task force was approximately one year long, and they held four meetings during this time. The task force was charged with studying competency-based instruction standards, the integration of competency-based instruction with the Iowa academic standards, developing performance assessment models, and professional development. Iowa looked to and engaged with New Hampshire and Alaska as examples.

Recommendation 4: Create Competency-based Education Pilots that Prioritize Mastery-based Transcripts

Competency-based education pilots allow states to foster innovation by letting a few school districts test a new way of teaching and learning. This type of policy can provide a catalyst for innovation, revealing longer-term policy solutions necessary to support competency-based education, and build plans for scalability. Pilots could incentivize powerful levers of change such as mastery-based transcripts that lead to more meaningful credentials. A more meaningful high school credential would focus on the knowledge, skills, and competencies a student has earned based on evidence of mastery.

  • Utah’s SB143 (2016) created a competency-based education pilot program, which provides grant incentives to local education agencies (LEAs) to transform their learning models. In 2017, the state allocated additional funds for Utah educators to attend study tours of competency-based education across the country. In 2018, the state published its Competency-Based Education Framework, which is informed by the earlier exploratory work and provides guidance on the shifts required to implement competency education, including those involving culture, quality, and change management. Finally, in 2019, the Utah Talent MAP was launched to provide a model profile of a graduate. Utah is building on the Talent MAP and state standards to design prototype competencies for secondary education, which are expected to launch in spring 2020. Local pilot implementation of these prototypes may begin as soon as 2021.

Recommendation 5: Pilot Innovative Systems of Assessments Under the Every Student Succeeds Act

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) created the Innovation Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA) in Section 1204. The program allows participating states to apply to the U.S. Department of Education to pilot innovative new systems of assessments in a subset of school districts before scaling statewide. States may apply on their own or as part of a consortium of up to four states. To date, four states have approval for IADA: New Hampshire, Louisiana, Georgia, and North Carolina. The best example of a state working on building competency-based pathways is New Hampshire (explained below).

  • In the fall of 2018, New Hampshire was granted an Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority for its use of PACE (Performance Assessment of Competency Education) Previously, when PACE operated under an ESEA waiver, only full districts could participate; now, individual schools can apply to the New Hampshire Department of Education to use performance assessments. New Hampshire PACE highlights many opportunities under the PACE program to use balanced systems of assessments to build capacity and drive toward continuous improvement—with positive outcomes from expanding high-quality professional development, building educator capacity for assessment literacy, and using data and feedback from embedded assessments to support decisions and growth for both teachers and students throughout the year.

In addition to the IADA opportunity to rethink accountability and assessment under ESSA, Colorado state policymakers are developing their own pilot program. Colorado’s legislature passed a new law in the 2019 session to support LEAs to try piloting new, student-centered accountability models. The Student-Centered Accountability System Pilot in Colorado provides funding and flexibility to school districts to design and implement new accountability systems. Colorado SB-19-204 also created the Local Accountability System Grant program in 2019. This program provides grant money to school districts to adopt local accountability systems that supplement the state accountability system. This grant program will allow districts the opportunity to design accountability systems that align with goals of college and career readiness for all students. Next-generation accountability systems can empower states, districts, and schools with timely, relevant information and provide the capacity to analyze and continuously improve on their practice.

We are interested in highlighting future-focused policy and ideas to change the conversation. Governors are uniquely positioned to engage communities in conversations to rethink student success along a lifelong learning continuum that spans early learning, K-12 education, career education, higher education, and the workforce. The time is ripe for governors to begin backward mapping a new “future state” with a deep commitment to bringing about systemic change for the long game. The first step is creating space for innovation, including K-12 education, higher education, career and technical education, and workforce training and credentialing. We hope that state leaders will rise to the challenge and chart a course forward to better align public education and workforce training with new pathways and the flexibility needed for students to earn meaningful credentials every step of the way, preparing them for the future of work, prosperity, and a fulfilling life.

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Susan Patrick is President & CEO, Maria Worthen is Vice President for Federal and State Policy, and Alexis Chambers is Policy Associate at iNACOL.