Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Susan Patrick, , ,

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

This is the seventeenth blog in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and what might be missing.

The purpose of Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education is to explore and reflect on the ideas that state policy needs to address in the long-term to support a transformation to competency-based education systems designed to ensure equity so all students can be truly ready for success. We will explore some ways that state policy could approach tackling threshold concepts as part of a long-game strategy.  

Our challenge is to catalyze the creation of a new, transformational theory of change for state policy to work toward in the long term. In doing so, we need to identify the blind spots – the things that we don’t even know that we don’t know – that are standing in the way of a system that is fit for purpose.

Our intent is 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.  

There is a growing realization that the traditional system design for American K-12 education is failing to adequately prepare students for the future. It is time to build a system on the core principle that all students can succeed and be ready for the next step in their learning, the workforce, and life.

Today, educators are beginning to build new competency-based learning models in which students are actively driving their learning while mastering the habits and skills necessary to fulfill their dreams. These new learning models are competency-based, learner-centered, and highly personalized. They hold all students to the same high standards and high expectations, and open the doors to fulfill their potential by providing targeted supports and emphasizing continuous growth. With a focus on competency, high-quality supports and sufficient resources, all students can learn and succeed.

In the traditional model of education, schools batch students by age, and move them through the same content and courses at the same pace. Students are ranked and sorted based on variable outcomes, creating “winners” and “losers” and perpetuating patterns of inequality in society. Education systems must transform to align with the needs of learners and the skills and dispositions they will need to succeed beyond secondary school. According to the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD):

In the past, education was about teaching people something. Now, it is about making sure that individuals develop a reliable compass and the navigation skills to find their own way through an increasingly uncertain, volatile and ambiguous world. […]it will often be the mistakes and failures, when properly understood, that create the context for learning and growth. […]Today, schools need to prepare students for more rapid economic and social change than ever before, for jobs that have not yet been created, to use technologies that have not yet been invented, and to solve social problems that we do not yet know will arise.1

Even with high school graduation rates at an all-time national high of 82%, 37% of high school graduates are entering college requiring remediation in math and reading thus, unprepared for the rigor of higher education.2 Graduates who enter the world of work directly after high school fare no better, with 62% of employers by one account indicating that “high schools aren’t doing enough to prepare their graduates to meet the expectations of the work place.”3 Students are not fully prepared for civic engagement to ensure a functioning democracy (only 30% of today’s young people believe it is “essential” to live in a country that is governed democratically).4 With these academic, workforce and civic readiness outcomes, it is clear that it is time to engage in a public dialog with communities and states around what is the goal and role of our K-12 education system. The very purpose of our education system has changed, but its design has not. Policymakers should be asking: are K-12 education systems fit for purpose?

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

With this paper, we hope to inspire new ideas and launch dialogue among communities and state policy leaders. Threshold concepts are “core concepts, that once understood, are needed to transform a given subject.”5 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.

In this section, we discuss our thinking around the core concepts that state policymakers might think about addressing for a long-term, sustainable shift to personalized, competency-based learning. The threshold concepts which we will discuss here are:

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

As we discuss the threshold concepts, we will also introduce some Issues to Tackle: ideas that state policymakers could be thinking about as part of a long game for transformation to student-centered learning. We will present some specific examples from policy, with the caveat that different approaches will work best in different contexts, and that true, broad application of these concepts in policy will only become possible if state policymakers begin to think long term.

In the next article, we will look at the threshold concept of certifying learning.

Follow this blog series:



Meeting Students Where They Are

Learn more:


1OECD. Schooling Redesigned: Towards Innovative Learning Systems, Educational Research and Innovation. OECD Publishing, 2015. Paris.

2The Nation’s Report Card. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), (2015).

3The State of American High School Graduates: What States Know (and Don’t) About Student Performance Achieve, February 2017.

4Roberto S. Foa, & Yascha Mounk. The Democratic Disconnect. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.

5Jan H. F. Meyer, Ray Land, & Caroline Baillie. Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning. Sense Publishers, 2010.