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Aurora Institute

4 Threshold Concepts for Policy to Tackle in the Long Term to Support Competency Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Nina Lopez, Susan Patrick, and Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Commit to Equity

This is the sixteenth post in the blog series on the report, Quality and Equity by Design: Charting the Course for the Next Phase of Competency-Based Education.

What ideas does state policy need to address in the long-term to create the conditions for a transformation to competency-based education systems designed to ensure equity, so all students can be truly ready for success? We intend to push current thinking beyond the assumptions that perpetuate root causes of inequity and the structural issues that perpetuate injustice. We are focusing on a strategy for policy to support systems change over the long haul toward competency-based systems that ensure mastery for all students and equity for all. We hope to inspire new ideas and launch dialogue among communities and state policy leaders.

Threshold Concepts: Key Issues for Policy to Tackle for the Long-Term

Threshold concepts are important concepts for policymakers to understand so that they drive better policy and address structural gaps in our education system. Threshold concepts are “core concepts, that once understood, are needed to transform a given subject.” They can 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. Threshold concepts are not policy issues, but they deeply impact policy. In this blog, we discuss our thinking around the core, or threshold concepts, that state policymakers might think about addressing for a long-term, sustainable shift to personalized, competency-based learning.

Threshold concepts to understand before we address action steps for policy-making are:

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

Threshold Concept: Certifying Learning

Unpacking what a high school diploma means and how we might re-envision this qualification is crucial to inform short-term policy conversations. The United States has significantly improved high school graduation rates over the past decade. However, less attention has been given to what this credential signifies. In far too many cases, we are not being honest with our high school graduates when we tell them that their diploma means they are ready for the next step. Students who require remediation in college courses are less likely to persist and attain a postsecondary degree. Those who directly enter the workforce without basic communication, problem solving, collaboration skills, and habits of success, may face under-employment or even unemployment.

“Curriculum redesign” is a common concept emerging in global education systems which addresses the question, “What do our students need to know and be able to do to succeed in the 21st century?” – especially with respect to a more holistic notion of student success for the future. Whether a community conversation or a statewide conversation, the idea of engaging communities and families around what students need to know and be able to do is increasingly important.

From Asia to Europe, from Australia and New Zealand, to Africa and India, and across the provinces of Canada — there is a deep and complex debate taking hold in communities around what students need to know and be able to do. In the United States, conversations are also happening around what students need to be prepared regarding academic standards and graduation requirements. However, these conversations are all too often based on limited assumptions about student success centered around content proficiency. States can begin now to engage districts and communities around what students need to master for true preparedness, and begin to rethink outdated accountability models. We need to think about redesigning education with new models of active, inquiry-based pedagogy to move forward with more holistic, learner-centered, competency-based learning models that help students gain the knowledge and skills they need to thrive after high school graduation. Once local communities have a shared understanding of what student success looks like, they can drive state-level understanding of curriculum redesign and the implications for new accountability models, new designs for assessments, new school models and building systems capacity (and better coherence).

Issue to Tackle: Redefining Success

In the traditional policy context, success is defined as grade-level proficiency, primarily or perhaps even exclusively in reading and math. We need to develop new definitions of student success that reflect the full range of knowledge and skills students will need to succeed in college, career, and civic life. A new definition of success would reflect high standards and expectations, not only on academic competencies, but also on social-emotional competencies, skills and dispositions. Once local communities have a shared understanding of what student success looks like, they can build state-level understanding of the policies used to support and monitor learning, including curriculum redesign and the implications for new accountability models, ensuring all students meet high standards, multiple pathways, new designs for assessments, new school models and building systems capacity for better coherence.

Issue to Tackle: Meaningful Qualifications

What is the purpose of a high school diploma and what does it represent about what a student knows and can do? Competency-based systems lend themselves to providing the evidence of a student’s demonstrated mastery toward a proficiency-based diploma, with rich information from learner profiles about what students know and can do.

Threshold Concept: Assessment Literacy

According to the National Task Force on Assessment Education for Teachers, “Those who are assessment literate understand how to gather dependable evidence and how to use it productively to support or certify achievement. Regardless of their level of involvement in the education process, they understand the importance of:

  • Beginning assessment with a clear purpose;
  • Starting with clear and specific learning target(s) to be assessed;
  • Building high-quality assessments to fit this intended context;
  • Communicating results in ways that assure understanding by recipients, and,
  • Linking assessment and student motivation in ways that keep all students striving for academic success.”

This idea of common expectations, and evaluating evidence against common standards and rubrics to build and evaluate comparability across schools and systems, requires significant investments in educator capacity building and collaboration to ensure consistent moderation and calibration of expectations, grading, and scoring practices across the state. The lack of assessment literacy across the system is a major blind spot. Significant capacity for assessment literacy is needed to advance new competency-based approaches and address tough issues in our current system.

Building professional educator capacity and policymakers’ understanding of assessment literacy is fundamental to shifting to personalized, competency-based systems at scale and focusing on equity. A competency-based learning system that offers personalized pathways for students to meet learning goals and learning targets requires educator capacity to evaluate student learning using multiple forms of evidence against common standards and expectations.

Issue to Tackle: Accountability as Continuous Improvement:

Trust — or a lack thereof — plays a silent but significant role in our current approaches to accountability. Educators may feel that accountability policies have been used as a tool to cast blame and judge intentions, rather than direct attention or build understanding. They may not trust accountability to serve as a tool for improvement. At the same time, many have come to rely upon the transparency of our accountability policies to generate urgency to address our country’s long history of inequity, and do not trust that same urgency to exist without it. These and other fears have bases in real experience. Unfortunately, they erode the trust that is critical to using accountability in proactive ways that improve the system.

High-quality competency-based systems rely upon transparent accountability models that support and empower rapid and constant improvements in learning and student growth toward success for college, career and life. Policy could catalyze accountability systems that empower all educators and schools to give students the supports they need to master the knowledge and skills necessary for success.

Threshold Concept: Pedagogical Innovations Based on Learning Sciences

Learning sciences are an important reference point in designing instructional models for equity. Learning sciences also consider how students learn best, 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. Although policy does not (and should not) dictate pedagogy, policymakers should understand the importance of the learning sciences and their ability to transform student learning with innovative new models. Policymakers should consider how current accountability, assessment and teacher development systems might hinder the development of new learning models and innovative pedagogies.

Threshold Concept: Meeting Students Where they Are

Similar to pedagogy, schools and districts have local discretion for designing and building adaptive learning models and systems that meet students where they are. However, policy plays an important role in setting the context for those systems. When different expectations are held for different students, inequity becomes the logical outcome. When those disparate expectations are coupled with inadequate or inappropriate supports, the disparities grow larger, wider and deeper.

Our current education policies are typically designed with an assumption rooted in traditional models of education that learning should happen through one-size-fits-all, large-group, direct instruction of grade-level content each day. Meeting students where they are requires learner-centered environments that are organized around mastery-based learning progressions. It means opportunities for in-depth teaching and learning based on each student’s goals and needs and providing extended learning opportunities and supports with flexibility. Policy needs to anticipate this structure or run the risk of impeding its success or even its existence. Meeting students where they are will catalyze new, sometimes radical approaches to organizing learning environments that challenge traditional schedules, course structures, pedagogies and grade levels. It is possible for students to begin below grade level and exceed one grade level of growth in a year. Consider the implications for students achieving standards above the constraints of the current age-based grade-level boundaries.

Issue to Tackle: Teacher Professional Judgment

Responsive teaching that personalizes instruction to meet students where they are requires highly skilled professionals that exercise professional judgement about student learning. This stands in contrast to what too many teachers experience today, which is a push to standardize instruction across schools and districts and minimize teacher professional judgement. We should be driving toward a system that trusts teachers to exercise professional judgement about student learning, in which teachers are empowered and have the professional expertise and systemic supports to make valid and reliable determinations of student mastery.

This shift has implications not just for teacher preparation but also for the professional growth experience of educators throughout their careers.

Issue to Tackle: Developing Capacity to Lead Change for the Long-Term

The vision for students in a competency-based education system is to empower them to lead their own trajectory to success in college, career and life. We need to actively seek out the leaders already among us, at all levels. At the same time, we will need to invest in human capital and prepare leaders who have the capacity to transform learning environments and systems. We need leaders at all levels who can lead the change together.

To delve deeper into these threshold concepts, read the report, Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education.

Follow this blog series for more articles charting the course for the next phase of competency-based education, or download the full report: