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Competency-Based Education Quality Principle #14: Increase Organizational Flexibility

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Evaluate Quality

This is the fifteenth article in a series based on the book Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education. You can find the section on Principle #14 Increase Organizational Flexibility on page 92. The links to the other articles can be found at the bottom of this page and will be updated as they are posted.

This structural quality principle about Organizational Flexibility goes hand-in-hand with the pedagogical Principle #9 Responsiveness. It comes down to this: We can’t expect teachers to be able to be responsive to meet students’ needs based on where they are unless the school has been designed to be flexible. For example, in today’s traditional environment, teachers have to purchase many of their own learning resources because the budgeting policies and practices are rigidly run by the district. If teachers are going to be able to respond to where students’ wonder, curiosity, and intellectual passions take them, they are going to need resource allocation operations that can turn on a dime.

Another important example is around scheduling and the annual calendar. How will a district or school ensure that there is time for students to access support every day? How will teachers have time to plan and collaborate to be able to respond to students as they make progress in their learning? How will time be organized for students to participate in high quality project-based learning at least twice a year so everyone has the opportunity to develop higher order skills and learn how to apply their academic knowledge and skills?

Part of the quality problem that our field is facing is that some districts and schools have been implementing competency-based education as if it is a technical reform. They operate on a theory of change that goes something like this: If we change how we grade or if we call standards competencies, then somehow that should produce greater learning. What they fail to understand is that we are in the midst of a sweeping transformation from traditional schools based on antiquated ideas of intelligence and dominance to modern schools based on what we know about learning and that are designed on the idea that each of us has infinite contributions to offer regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, class, gender, and sexual preference. This transformation requires us to be reflective, analytical, and creative in letting go of old practices and introducing new ones.

Responsiveness requires us to be innovative. The innovations may not be innovative within the greater field, but for any one school or one district, they may feel tremendously new, perhaps a bit scary and exhilarating. This is not experimenting on children as long as it is based on the research on learning. What’s horrifying is to keep using practices that we know are ineffective, such as lecturing day after day after day or using grading practices that only give summative scores without opportunity for productive feedback and revision.

From day one, I have always shared with our staff that we can approach and reach our mission and vision a thousand different ways, but we cannot have a thousand different mission and visions…we will always have one. We are all committed to our mission and vision, and it’s just the way that we do business. However, we can have a thousand ways to get there. We are always innovating, and with that comes new approaches to supporting learning and building opportunities for our students. — James Murray, Principal, Waukesha STEM Academy, Waukesha School District, WI, 2017[1]

Although at CompetencyWorks we believe that at a minimum competency-based education has to be implemented schoolwide, we think that it will always be better when embraced district-wide. Part of the reason is that there are policies and gaps between elementary and middle and middle and high school that constrain the ability of schools to meet students where they are. The other part is that schools need to have high levels of autonomy to be responsive. Smaller districts have fewer problems making the shift to more autonomous schools, as it is simply easier to get everyone around a table to talk things through. Decisions are made through dialogue rather than memo. Medium-sized districts are going to need to think more carefully about creating district-wide policies that provide meaningful autonomy. Large districts, if they haven’t yet embraced the portfolio of schools model, should be learning from those that have developed the necessary policies and procedures.

[1] Sturgis, C. (2017). Creating a learner-driven system in Waukesha. CompetencyWorks. Retrieved from

Read the Entire Series:

  1. Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education
  2. Purpose-Driven
  3. Commit to Equity
  4. Nurture a Culture of Learning and Inclusivity
  5. Foster the Development of a Growth Mindset
  6. Cultivate Empowering and Distributed Leadership
  7. Base School Design and Pedagogy on Learning Sciences
  8. Activate Student Agency and Ownership
  9. Design for the Development of Rigorous Higher-Level Skills
  10. Ensure Responsiveness
  11. Seek Intentionality and Alignment
  12. Establish Mechanisms to Ensure Consistency and Reliability
  13. Maximize Transparency
  14. Invest in Educators as Learners
  15. Increase Organizational Flexibility
  16. Develop Processes for Ongoing Continuous Improvement and Organizational Learning
  17. Advance Upon Demonstrated Mastery