Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Three Big Questions for Evolving State Education Policy to Support Student-Centered Learning in 2018

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Maria Worthen

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education

This post originally appeared at iNACOL on January 26, 2018.

With states preparing to implement newly-approved plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), there is an opportunity to reflect on some key issues from the field. ESSA provides a historic opportunity for states to transform K-12 education by redefining success, redesigning systems of assessments, rethinking accountability and aligning educator workforce capacity to student-centered learning.

After years of asking for more flexibility and freedom from No Child Left Behind’s restrictive frameworks for accountability, assessment and teacher quality, state and local stakeholders can now approach outdated educational systems differently under ESSA. States could use new flexibility in ESSA to advance equity and improve student outcomes with systems that support student-centered learning.

We find ourselves at the beginning of a process of systems change that started with ESSA reauthorization, and that will not succeed in the long term unless we are able to identify (and address) the gaps in knowledge, capacity and policy enablers and supports to move the work in transforming education forward. The purpose of this blog post is to explore some of these gaps and questions as they relate to education policy and the roles of state policymakers; in particular:

  1. What does it mean for students to be truly prepared for success after high school?
  2. What information do families and communities need to know to understand whether schools are preparing students for success?
  3. What could accountability for continuous improvement look like in K-12 education?

In rethinking assumptions, we face a challenging task: policymakers must begin to forge a new path, asking and answering tough questions along the way, taking risks, learning from failures, and correcting course when needed. This blog post addresses some of the questions and challenges that we hope policymakers will consider as they examine ways to further the shift to student-centered learning in their own, unique state contexts for K-12 education.

Question 1: What does it mean for students to be truly prepared for success after high school?

Families want to know that children are being prepared to attain a college degree, to become gainfully employed and to be engaged in their communities. Employers want to know if graduates can solve problems, think creatively, work in diverse teams and communicate effectively. It is time for communities, educators and policymakers to come together to redefine success and align education systems around helping all students succeed. South Carolina and Virginia have established new Graduate Profiles (rooted in the district work of EdLeader21) and are beginning to align systems around these profiles. They are asking what students need to know and be able to do to prepare for the complex world they will enter.

A Profile of a Graduate is an important starting point for any state in the work of transforming K-12 education to student-centered learning. States with comprehensive graduate profiles might consider how they would address the following questions:

  1. How will we know that students are reaching success, across the full profile of a graduate? What are our goals and how will we measure our progress?
  2. How can state graduation requirements align to our profile of a graduate? What are the learning progressions from pre-K to grade 12 that will lead to meeting the requirements?
  3. What changes will districts need to make to instructional models and curricula in order to support each student’s success toward a profile of a graduate?
  4. What skills will teachers need to be able to exercise professional judgment around student mastery of the key knowledge and skills required for the profile of a graduate?

Question 2: What information do families and communities need to know to understand whether schools are preparing students for success?

It is essential that we continue to collect and report information about student academic achievement and readiness, and disaggregate that information by subgroup for each school so that we can look at patterns and intervene where groups of students’ needs are not being met.

At the same time, we should be asking if families and communities are getting the information that is most meaningful and important to them about school quality. The limited information that is currently communicated on school report cards – with summative state test scores and graduation rates – is insufficient to understand whether students are really learning and being prepared for success.

Policymakers and district leaders should be engaging deeply with a diverse cross-section of families and communities to learn what information is important for them to know about their schools. An important follow-up action step to this conversation is identifying how information could be collected, reported and used, and at which levels. Not all information collected needs to be (or should be) used for high-stakes purposes, and most of this information will only be needed at the local level. Another important discussion is how transparency of indicators of school quality might support reciprocal accountability.

Question 3: What could accountability for continuous improvement look like in K-12 education?

Accountability as continuous improvement recognizes that each student, teacher and school is in a different place on their path to meeting high expectations and that each one has room to improve. Educational systems should be designed to meet students, educators and schools where they are in their respective development so that they have what they need to accelerate achievement and close gaps.

An accountability system based on continuous improvement requires:

  • Creating a new, more holistic definition of student success that reflects the comprehensive range of knowledge, skills and dispositions students will need to succeed in higher education, the workforce and civic life;
  • Benchmarking using multiple metrics for the new definition of student success;
  • Providing transparency around mastery, gaps and depth of student learning so educators can ensure that learning gaps are filled and all students have the opportunity to learn at deeper levels of knowledge;
  • Monitoring student pacing and employing evidence of what works best to improve student learning;
  • Tracking both student proficiency in relation to time-bound targets, evaluating progress on the trajectory of growth along learning progressions toward the next level of proficiency and monitoring the relative performance on these metrics between student subgroups; and
  • Reciprocal accountability, in which “Each level of the system — from federal and state governments to districts and schools — should be accountable for the contributions it must make to produce high-quality learning opportunities for each and every child. States and districts must be accountable for providing the resources, supports and incentives that result in well-staffed, effective schools. Schools must be accountable for using these resources wisely and enabling strong teaching. Educators must be accountable for teaching the standards in ways that respond to their students’ needs. Everyone must be accountable for continuous learning.” Darling-Hammond, L., Wilhoit, G., and Pittenger, L. (October 2014). Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm. Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE).

For accountability for continuous improvement to really work and transform education systems, we need to look beyond its components and consider the broader implications of shifting from traditional, compliance-based accountability systems. Some questions to think about include:

  • What human capacity and mindsets need to change to allow for true continuous improvement and reciprocality?
  • What can we learn from improvement sciences?
  • What promising practices can we look to from school improvement that provide a microcosm of accountability for continuous improvement at the school or district level?
  • Are there promising or emerging policies we can learn from?
  • What can we learn from abroad?

In looking at examples, some places we could look to include Alberta and British Columbia, Canada, New Zealand, Inspectorates in the UK; and Quality Reviews in Vermont.


This blog provides some considerations and guidance as state policymakers, district leaders, and local stakeholders consider how to best go about shifting to student-centered learning. Please let us know what you are seeing and learning as you engage in these conversations.

Note: As states begin to refine and implement their state plans under ESSA, it’s important to keep in mind that once approved, a state can request an amendment to their plan from the U.S. Department of Education at any time.

See also:

Maria Worthen is Vice President for Federal and State Policy at iNACOL. Prior to joining iNACOL, Maria served as Education Policy Adviser to the Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. She also worked at the US Department of Education, serving as Congressional Liaison in the Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs, Program Officer in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education and Presidential Management Fellow in the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools.