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Aurora Institute

Designing a Competency-Based System for Equity

CompetencyWorks Blog

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

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

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

The vision for educational equity is a fair, and just system where every learner, students and teachers alike, are thriving. In order to realize educational equity, we must openly acknowledge and then overcome the history of bigotry, discrimination, and oppression that has shaped communities and institutions, including our K-12 education system, and sadly continues to do so today. Inequity is often referred to as a cause of the tremendous educational disparities in achievement and attainment we see today. However, some also refer to inequity to describe the persistent unfairness of outcomes. For three centuries, advocates have demanded and organized to remove barriers for segments of our society — by gender, by color of skin, by language and for those with a disability — in pursuit of more equal resources, access and outcomes. While more equal resources and greater access remain necessary goals, these are inadequate to realize more equal opportunities for students. For that, a focus upon equity strategies, strategies that will produce greater fairness, is necessary. With so many different perspectives about equity, a discussion requires us to start by unpacking what equity means to ensure we are not talking past each other.

The National Equity Project defines educational equity:

Educational equity means that each child receives what he or she needs to develop to his or her full academic and social potential.

Working toward equity in schools involves:

  • Ensuring equally high outcomes for all participants in our educational system; removing the predictability of success or failures that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor;
  • Interrupting inequitable practices, examining biases, and creating inclusive multicultural school environments for adults and children; and
  • Discovering and cultivating the unique gifts, talents and interests that every human possesses.

Equally high outcomes, removing the predictability of success or failure, interrupting inequitable practices and cultivating students’ unique gifts make up the multi-pronged strategies that can guide communities, states, districts, schools and each of us towards educational equity. Please note, referring to students’ “potential” runs the risk of reinforcing a fixed mindset or notions that students have a predetermined amount of potential, some having more or less than others. Alternatively, “potential” can be understood in a more aspirational way, pushing us to look beyond what students have accomplished to date to focus instead on what more is possible. It is not for educators to determine potential but to help students discover and reach their potential.

Having a common set of shared and ambitious expectations for all students is critical to equity, but it isn’t enough. We posit that each student’s “potential” must include the set of common expectations for students described in this paper as prepared for college, career, and life. However, each student’s potential will be unique and goes beyond these shared expectations. Each student’s potential is a reflection of their unique passions, interests, talents and experiences. Equity pushes us to move beyond simply holding different students to a shared set of expectations towards understanding that each student approaches those expectations with a different set of personal experiences, skills and identities. Understanding a student’s individual “potential” is an important concept to unpack and a powerful starting point for discussions within each school community. Done well, these conversations drive equity by internalizing a shared understanding and commitment to equity.

Equity also requires us to recognize that students are asked to achieve similar outcomes within a broader set of social and historical contexts. It is possible to consider this as a continuum or stages of development in the journey towards educational equity. Initially, the focus was on creating greater access so that the doors of the schoolhouse were open to all students. It then became clear that access alone while remaining separate would never be equal and that some children were privileged with more resources than others. Thus, the focus shifted towards integration, inclusion, and a focus upon equality. In the struggle for equality, advocates fought for the provision of the same level of resources and the same pathways to academic and postsecondary outcomes. These goals remain unrealized today and there is still much work to be done to provide meaningful access to equal resources and pathways.

Over the past twenty years, a new understanding of what we envision for a fair and equitable education system has evolved. We have come to recognize that equality in terms of providing the same resources or educational experiences is not enough. Our goal has shifted beyond equality to notions of equity and fairness that demand personalization and responsiveness to students as individuals. Educational equity is a vision of fairness in which all students, each and every student, are fully supported along their personal learning pathways in reaching high educational expectations and developing to their fullest potential. In order for students to have a fair shot at reaching the educational outcomes implied by the concept of readiness for college and careers, we must recognize and shape educational strategies that take into context the economic and racial disparity that shapes communities across our country.

Educational equity promises that every student will reach their potential by designing an educational system that responds to students to ensure they are building the skills they will need in college, careers and life. Realizing this promise requires us to start with the belief that the same high expectations — preparation for college, career and life — are possible for all students. From here, equitable systems actively seek to identify a student’s unique set of experiences, strengths, needs, identities and passions, and use these as assets in the work of helping students to meet these expectations. Thus, educational systems need to have the capacity to meet students where they are: schools need to have flexibility in order to provide the support necessary for students to achieve success.

An equitable educational system starts with a commitment to quality and excellence, is designed to personalize learning and embeds strong equity strategies into the core of the organization. Equity reflects a commitment to ensuring that historically underserved students are successful by embracing a mantra of:

  • How should the system adapt and respond in order to engage and empower students to learn, progress and achieve mastery?
  • What will it take to ensure that students who are not making adequate progress are moving forward?

Equal access and equal resources are necessary but insufficient to realize this vision for equity. Equity requires us to go further to create a more adaptive system that supports a personalized approach that meets students where they are, and leverages student agency, motivation and engagement to optimize a school’s pedagogical approach so that every student has a meaningful pathway to college and career readiness and beyond.

While competency-based education structures are designed in a way that facilitate equity and excellence, inequity can still seep into a system. A deep and vigilant commitment to equity is required to overcome bias and inequitable patterns. Given these concerns that inequitable patterns might undermine efforts to create powerful competency-based systems, the question facing us as a field is: What are the necessary equity strategies to ensure student success, and how do we monitor their effectiveness in a personalized, competency-based system?

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

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