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Aurora Institute

U.S. Department of Education Announces New $300M Competitive Grant Program for Rethinking Education

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Susan Patrick

Issue(s): Federal Policy, State Policy, Build Balanced Systems of Assessments, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education

Today, the U.S. Department of Education announced a new $300 million grant program for states to rethink education and innovate. The funding is a competitive grant program for states to create innovative learning opportunities for K-12 and postsecondary learners in response to the COVID-19 emergency.

According to the Department:

“The CARES Act provides $307.5 million for these discretionary grants, which the Department will divide between two competitions: $180 million for the Rethink K-12 School Models Grant and $127.5 million for the Reimagining Workforce Preparation Grant.

The Rethink K-12 School Models Grant is aimed at opening new, innovative ways for students to access K-12 education with an emphasis on meeting students’ needs during the coronavirus national emergency. The competition is open to state educational agencies which can apply for funds in one of the three categories:

        1. Microgrants for families, so that states can ensure they have access to the technology and educational services they need to advance their learning
        2. Statewide virtual learning and course access programs, so that students will always be able to access a full range of subjects, even those not taught in the traditional or assigned setting
        3. New, field-initiated models for providing remote education not yet imagined, to ensure that every child is learning and preparing for successful careers and lives

The full Notice Inviting Applications (NIA) will be available online today.”

These grants provide states with opportunities to explore future-focused state policy actions to support transforming K-12 education, including those that:

  • Create personalized, competency-based learning models that are student-centered for anytime, anywhere, learning
  • Align competency-based pathways across K-12, higher education, career and technical education, and the workforce

The Education Department says it will make application packages available within two weeks, after which states will have 60 days to apply. As with most of the Department of Education’s discretionary grant competitions, applications will be evaluated by a panel of independent peer reviewers, and the highest-scoring applications will be funded. For more information, please visit

What Are Student-Centered Innovations in K-12 Education?

Anytime, anywhere student-centered and competency-based learning pathways are critical innovations for K-12 education. This need is magnified by the current pandemic.

Now is the time for both rapid-response to the COVID-19 pandemic and long-term planning to ensure smoother transitions and to enable personalized, student-centered learning pathways. These grants to rethink education must address the specific needs of students, their parents, and teachers.

The Jobs for the Future report Putting Students at the Center defines student-centered learning with four key tenets:

  • Anytime, anywhere learning
  • Competency-based learning
  • Personalized learning
  • Student-owned learning

The only thing we can be certain of in our rapidly changing, and increasingly interconnected global economy, is that we will again in the future need to transition from face-to-face to different forms of learning experiences inside and outside of school, in the community, at home, through online and blended models, and in the workplace.

What Is Competency-Based Education?

Never before has the need for competency-based education systems focused on equity for all been more apparent.

Aurora Institute’s CompetencyWorks initiative published a field definition for competency-based education as a system in which:

    1. Students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning.
    2. Assessment is a meaningful, positive, and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant, and actionable evidence.
    3. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
    4. Students progress based on evidence of mastery, not seat time.
    5. Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing.
    6. Strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of schools and education systems.
    7. Rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable.

A competency-based learning model should implement all seven elements of the definition. Strong implementation also requires policies, pedagogy, structures, and culture that support every student.

Policymakers in every state and local community need to address fundamental questions to modernize our education systems and drive sustainable systems transformation toward equitable, student-centered learning models.

This is an opportunity to think differently about what is possible in an equitable future education system where all students succeed and begin redesigning based on research on how students learn best. This redesign is necessary to address deep-seated systems design flaws across K-12 education and support educators, parents, and students anytime, everywhere.

What It Looks Like

Next-generation learning looks different. It means that learners move away from content packed into traditional course sequences and into more modular learning units and experiences. It is possible to leave grade– and age-level grouping behind and focus on learner profiles and learner needs. Doing so allows a focus on each student’s progress through the defined continuum of learning where high expectations for world-class knowledge and skills are applied equally and justly for every learner.

There is a focus on balanced systems of assessments with performance assessments creating evidence of what a student has learned, what they know and can show. Embedded assessments are part of the learning process. It means learning trajectories clearly state learning goals of big ideas and key concepts.

Student learning plans are based on attainment of mastery and demonstrated competency through these progressions (and not all students in the same sequences!). This means students build agency over learning how to learn and that evidence of learning can be varied. Grading is redesigned and based on a student demonstrating knowledge and skills against a common target (rubric) – not a subjective judgment on a curve that masks communicating truth about what a student knows or doesn’t. Failure is no longer an option.

The Time Is Here for States to Define a Vision for the Future

In 2015, CCSSO’s Innovation Lab Network defined six design principles for systems that promote “next-generation learning,” including fostering world-class knowledge and skills; building student agency; delivering personalized, competency-based learning; ensuring access to anytime/anywhere learning; and providing comprehensive systems of learner supports.

We are still a long way from this vision of ensuring all students have what they need to succeed—supported in a system whose design models these six tenets. The opportunity is here before us and critically important. Now more than ever, we mustn’t fail to respond or respond in a short-sighted, small-scale, or piecemeal fashion. It’s essential to seize the opportunity to redesign teaching and learning and re-imagine the very purpose of schools.

Susan Patrick is President and CEO of Aurora Institute.