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Aurora Institute

Task Forces and Pilot Programs: Two Strategies to Enable Future-Focused, Student-Centered K-12 Education

Education Domain Blog

This post continues our special series on Future-Focused State Policy Actions to Transform K-12 Education. The series highlights policy issues to modernize our education system and align current educational practice with knowledge of how students learn best. We focus on leveraging state policy opportunities to increase access and open pathways toward future-focused learning experiences that build knowledge and skills for lifelong learning. Follow the links at the end of the post to read the other posts in this series.


2012 and 2019 snapshot of competency-based education policymakingThe prevailing traditional, one-size-fits-all K-12 education model is not meeting the unique needs of learners. Too many students are falling through the cracks, not graduating, or graduating unprepared for success after high school. For these and many other reasons, school districts across the country are making shifts to competency-based learning, seeking state policy support and flexibility as they do so.

Two tools have emerged as a means for schools and districts to begin their transformational journey to more personalized, student-centered learning: task forces and pilots. These strategies are highlighted as an important policy priority in the Aurora Institute 2020 state policy agenda, which is a call to action to enable the needed innovations in education to equip students for a rapidly changing world.

Task Forces

Through legislative task forces, state education decision-makers can study competency-based education and the related policies and practices needed to enable it. Members of the task force interview experts and educators from competency-based education systems, research and analyze supportive policies and barriers, determine how to improve the capacity of educators to work in a competency-based learning environment, and set recommendations to get started.

These conversations often happen in a low-stakes environment, which leads to a more thorough understanding of what is possible with K-12 education. State leaders benefit from having a space in which they can exchange their ideas and express their concerns freely. They can challenge the ideas embedded in the current K-12 structure, and they can dig deeply into real problems and consequences of ranking and sorting learners in a time-based system.

In other words, they can dream big about what the future of education could look like for students.

Pilot Programs

Competency-based education pilot programs support the development of new learning models, incubate innovations in teaching and learning, and offer insights into promising practices that can scale across the state.

Typically, CBE education pilots are limited to a specified number of districts, and they are created to enable innovative educators to begin designing new learning models. Educators work through planning stages, identify core design elements, and communicate what competency-based education systems look like and how they work. Pilots build educator capacity for assessing performance tasks as students create evidence of mastery and fine-tune strategies to develop a true mastery-based system through exhibitions of student work. While innovations in schools are taking hold, state policymakers can help foster collaboration across pilot sites to spread best practices.

State Examples

All but one state in the nation have some policy flexibility that can enable the implementation of CBE, and many of them opt to begin their journeys with either a task force or pilot program.

Utah Senate Bill 143  in 2016 created the state’s first competency-based education pilot program, which provided grants and incentives to local education agencies to transform their learning models. It authorized the Utah State Board of Education to review and establish competency-based education pilots and assessments to award demonstration of student mastery. 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 guides the shifts required to implement CBE, including those involving culture, quality, and change management. In 2019, the Utah Talent MAP 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. Local pilot implementations of these prototypes may begin as soon as 2021.

State Policy Actions

Competency-based education is being implemented at deeper levels in more schools every year. It is a significant shift in school culture, structures, and pedagogy focused on ensuring that all students succeed and addressing the fundamental shortcomings of the traditional model. Task forces and pilots provide useful entry points for school leaders and educators to get started–combined with the needed flexibility and funding–to design new personalized models to ensure every student is successful through competency-based pathways.

Transformation at scale will require innovations to take hold in local contexts and support a long-term alignment of both policy and practice. We recommend that states:

    • Launch a statewide legislative task force for competency-based education to provide thought leadership and create a space for dialogue between policymakers and stakeholders in states.
    • Clarify definitions of competency-based education systems to support the development and continuous improvement of these innovative education structures and models.
    • Create and launch competency-based pilots that allow educators and schools to innovate new teaching and learning approaches tied to a state vision of student success.
    • Provide support to competency-based education pilots to build capacity for educators to share evidence and best practices in designing and implementing student-centered learning.

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Alexis Chambers is Policy Associate at Aurora Institute.