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Aurora Institute

Ensuring Practice Informs Federal Policy

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Design for Educational Equity, Create Space to Pilot Systems of Assessments

Screen Shot 2013-07-18 at 6.10.17 PMDuring ACHIEVE’s Competency-based Pathways Working Group meeting today, Lillian Pace from KnowledgeWorks provided a quick update on federal policy incentives, barriers and issues surrounding competency education.  This post includes information shared during the meeting including 1) questions and concerns raised by policymakers and 2) examples  of how competency education is being integrated into federal policy.  At the end I’ll share my concerns about possible unintended consequences of having increased policy discussion at the federal level.

1) Policymaker Questions and Concerns

The four topics below come up over and over again as policymakers and advocates try to get their heads wrapped around competency education. They are important for us to think about as we strengthen our communication efforts and prioritize our efforts.

A)   Equity: “Won’t a self-paced approach just widen the achievement gap?”

B) Capacity: “Do states and districts even have access to the type of assessments and personalized learning tools to ensure quality implementation?”

C) Accountability: “If we provide states and districts with the flexibility to design new accountability systems aligned to competency, how will we ensure comparability and rigor?”

D) Teacher Evaluation: “What does teacher evaluation look like in a competency-based setting? Who is the teacher of record?”

2) Examples of Federal Policies


A)  Innovation Funds Race to the Top, i3, RTT-District: There was strong demand for competency education: 75% of the winning RTT– D applicants included competency-based elements

B) White House Proposal for High School Redesign: The proposal includes the following language: “Redesigned high schools will move away from the traditional notion of seat time and focus instead on the knowledge and skills needed to successfully transition from high school to college and careers.” See the Fact Sheet: Redesigning America’s High Schools; USED 6/7/13

C) Elementary and Secondary Education Act Reauthorization: The version of the ESEA that passed the Senate Committee on 6/12/13 included Section 4909 outlining a Competency Based Assessment and Accountability Demonstration.

See KnowledgeWorks Federal Innovation Competitions: A Catalyst for Competency Education  

 Higher Education

A) Title IV Eligibility Extended to Competency-Based Degrees This change in federal policy is an enormous policy shift permitting students enrolled in a competency education program to access federal financial aid. So far two schools have been approved, Southern New Hampshire’s College for America and Capella University, with Northern Arizona University pending.

B) White House Proposal for Higher Ed Innovation & Reform: The Promoting Innovation and Competition section would expect colleges to adopt at least one of these strategies: Award credits based on learning, not seat time; Use technology to redesign courses (MOOCs),Use technology to personalize student support services,Recognize prior learning and promote dual enrollment. See the Fact Sheet: President’s Plan to Make College More Affordable; USED 8/22/13

3) Possible Unintended Consequences of Dynamic Federal Policy Development

There are lots of conversations about competency education at the national level, especially around higher education.  Much of the conversation is about innovation rather than permitting or compelling competency education. However, there is a downside even in just the active policy conversations going on right now — some see it as a “advocate-driven reform”.  We need to pay attention because this can start to turn competency education into just another reform rather than one deeply rooted in the leadership of local educators. Furthermore we also know that as policies start to be pushed at the federal level, states can grab hold and push it even further (think of the number of state tests added on in the spirit of NCLB). Pushing the reform from top-down can risk ideas being integrated prematurely into policy and  undermine innovation space. There is a big difference between creating competency-based schooling because it is the right thing to do for kids as compared to doing it because a bureaucrat in higher levels of government tells you that you have to.

What does this mean for us? Anyone engaged in federal policy conversations need to be running their ideas by leading states, districts and schools to make sure the ideas are solid. We need to make sure that policy is being fully informed by practice.