Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Threshold Concept: Meeting Kids Where They Are

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Susan Patrick, , ,

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This is the twentieth-first article 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.

David Hood’s “Paradigm of One” describes how the current model focuses on “one teacher, teaching one subject, to one class of one age, using one [textbook], at one pace, in one classroom, for one hour,” and describes this rut in which the traditional system is stuck.1 In a time-based factory-model education system, students move through grade levels with varying amounts of learning with recorded grades of A-F without ensuring mastery. This all but guarantees that students will have significant gaps in core knowledge when they move from one grade level to the next. These disparities grow over time. When different levels of expectations are held for different students, the disparities grow larger, wider and deeper.

New personalized learning environments that are competency-based and student-centered help teachers identify the strengths of individual students and help meet kids where they are. They include assessments for learning with structured feedback to pupils, setting individual learning targets, planning to support individual needs, using data to dialog and diagnose each student’s learning needs every day.

In our current, traditional educational system, there is a significant focus on old pedagogical models for delivering a one-size-fits-all lesson of grade-level content each day. The retrograde effects of accountability systems are perhaps most apparent in the challenges educators face across the United States to truly try to meet students where they are.

The research on how students learn examines how important it is to meet a student within their zone of proximal development, allow for productive struggle and design progressions effectively where learning hinges on successful prior learning. A student’s zone of proximal development is defined as the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help.2 We know that when students are able to address prior gaps in their learning, they can accelerate their learning dramatically. As such, educators need to be able to scaffold instruction at the appropriate level as well as offering the supports and resources depending on student needs when delivering instruction. If our old pedagogical approaches force content to be traditionally delivered through one-size-fits-all approaches within age-based grade levels, we are not truly meeting students where they are. How do we advance equity in a system that approaches it with sameness in pedagogy? Is it fundamental to create equity through a foundation that is competency-based to ensure every student reaches mastery?

Meeting students where they are requires a true fundamental shift of the learning environment to become learner-centered and to be organized around mastery-based learning progressions across a continuum over time with opportunities for in-depth teaching and learning based on each student’s goals and needs and providing extended learning opportunities and supports with flexibility. And, most importantly, competency-based systems require knowing where every student is academically and holistically and then making sure each student receives the instruction and support they need to build confidence, lifelong learning habits, knowledge, skills and competencies to be successful.

Advancing competency-based systems means meeting students where they are every day and engaging in a cycle of supporting learning academically, socially, emotionally and holistically. There are major challenges when students have moved through a time-based system with decent grades to find out when entering a competency-based educational model that they are several grade levels behind. How do we address these issues in the traditional system that leave students with major gaps in knowledge, skills and abilities, and a lack of preparedness based on the system’s focus on drilling students forward with time-based (not learning-based) progressions?

The concept of “meeting kids where they are” is holistic and honestly addresses where they are in the learning progression. In a competency-based education system, it is important to develop the competence and confidence of each learner through teaching and learning strategies that build on individual needs and offer extended learning opportunities. Learning environments are learner-centered to accommodate different paces and styles of learning. Students build their own capacity and have to “learn to learn” lessons, thus becoming literate in the learning sciences and more knowledgeable about their own assessment literacy across the curriculum, too.

Competency-based education systems offer choice (every day) in order to engage and respect students’ breadth of study and personal relevance with clear pathways through the system toward goals. These are more scaffolded in earlier levels of development and student agency is developed from early years with growing independent learning opportunities over time. The learning targets are consistent and set high goals for all students. The ethos is focused on student needs and provides student agency and voice in schools through a focus on data and continuous improvement, too. Knowing where every student is every day focuses on a whole new level of transparency for students, parents, educators, principals, schools and communities. It offers deep conversations about data-driven decisions every day.

Meeting kids where they are will catalyze new, sometimes radical approaches to organizing learning environments that challenge traditional schedules, course structures, schedules, and grade-levels. Learning is organized around mastery-based progressions and rooted in research on how students learn. Accelerated options are available and students can move on when ready. There are opportunities for deeper learning for every student.

Competency-based approaches which meet kids where they are provide learning opportunities beyond the classroom to best fit their needs and future interests. Communities, local institutions, social services, health providers, museums and the arts are supporting schools to drive forward progress of students. It includes extended learning opportunities within community-based institutions. Voice and choice is about engaging students in their own learning and shaping the provision of loosely networked educational opportunities, where students can partner to do internships or projects that matter in their communities and then schools will credential learning that occurs outside of the classroom. This will allow students to work toward developing their talents and building competence aligned with their future goals.

New systems of education to support competency-based approaches will begin to expand into networks of learning spaces and hubs – across programs, schools and institutions, where there is collaboration and knowledge building. This will require clarity of concepts for meeting kids where they are and common language including the understanding of new pedagogical models, tools, evidence-based practices, personalized learning and competency-based learning among professionals. Core to this work is the development of capacity for new models of assessments including authentic assessments, performance assessments, digital portfolios as well as the development of pedagogical innovations and better learning strategies.

​Issue to Tackle: Building Teacher Professional Judgment

If we fail to invest in the capacity of educators– the people who can make the greatest difference in students’ learning– we will do both teachers and students a grave disservice. We need to make a shift in how we think about teacher pre-service training and professional learning. It is not enough to rely on teachers’ love of teaching, enjoyment of working with children, or subject expertise, particularly when they often must work in high-stakes, low-pay, and low-trust conditions. A passion for teaching is an important prerequisite, but it is not enough. Teachers in the U.S. are being trained and credentialed to deliver academic content with the goal of student proficiency on academic standards. More often than not, teachers are not gaining the skills to establish supportive learning environments with their students and engage students in the learning process before they get to the classroom. Building professional capacity in the educator workforce is the best thing we can do in the long term to ensure success for every student.

We need to be mindful of how we might consider building capacity in leaders and educators to lead the system transformation toward competency-based education. We should be driving toward a system that trusts teachers to exercise professional judgement about student learning, in which teachers are empowered and have the professional expertise and systemic supports to make valid and reliable determinations of student mastery. How would we redesign a system to foster better relationships across student, parent, family, community and state, and provide the data, transparency and reciprocal accountability to hold each other responsible? What role will teachers play in the development and implementation of new systems of assessments that actively support student learning?

Tackling Building Teacher Professional Judgment in Policy: Transforming Systems to Build Educator Capacity

Transformation of K-12 education systems will also require transformation of educator preparation and development systems to themselves become personalized and competency-based. These new approaches to educator preparation and development will enable teachers to take on new roles as they work individually and collectively to design customized pathways to graduation for every student. To fully transform K-12 education systems to student-centered learning, we need to rethink the way we build educator capacity.

Rather than our nation’s siloed systems of educator pre-service preparation, certification, professional development and evaluation, a competency-based system would provide a seamless continuum in which aspiring educators build and master instructional competencies, and upon entering the profession, access customized professional development and evaluation opportunities to ensure continuous improvement throughout their careers.

Ongoing, job-embedded, competency-based, and personalized professional learning must be at the heart of any system redesign. Pre-service training and professional learning cannot be siloed from new learning model designs, innovative pedagogical practices, personalized learning, systems of assessments, or accountability in a competency-based education system. The New Hampshire PACE3 report examines “Balanced Systems of Assessments” and illustrates how coherent systems of assessments are as much about building capacity for teacher professional judgment and assessment literacy as it is for student learning. In doing so, New Hampshire is recognizing that teacher capacity, student capacity and student learning are inextricably linked. Teachers from the PACE pilot districts collaborate to develop the performance tasks that will be a part of the systems of assessments at statewide Quality Performance Assessment Institutes. Teacher teams score and moderate student work on the performance tasks, participating in a statewide Comparability Workshop to ensure that scores of student work are consistent across reviewers from different school districts.

Following are some issues that policymakers could be thinking about as they consider ways to develop systems that support teacher capacity and build trust that gives teachers space to exercise professional judgment.

System Coherence Around Clear, Specific Educator and School Leader Competencies

In competency-based and personalized education, educators often take on new roles as they work individually and collectively to design customized pathways to graduation for every student. Before a state can transform its pre-service preparation, certification, professional development, and evaluation programs to ensure educators have the support and resources to make this transition, educators need to know what they need to know and be able to do to succeed in student-centered learning environments.

State policymakers might think about how they can support educators, school leaders, institutions of higher education, and experts in the fields of competency-based education to collaboratively design and adopt these competencies. They will need to outline the skills educators need to implement personalized learning strategies to meet the needs of every student and to exercise professional judgment on student mastery. For school leaders, they will need to outline the skills for change management and creating positive cultures of learning within their schools, in addition to instructional leadership.

One example of an effort to define clear educator competencies was led by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and Jobs for the Future (JFF). CCSSO and JFF created a set of educator competencies based on four domains: cognitive (need to know), intrapersonal (need to process), interpersonal (need to relate) and instructional (need to do). These competencies represent some of the knowledge, habits, mindsets, and skills educators need to possess in order to foster personalized, student-centered learning.4

Clear definitions of what educators need to know and be able to do run parallel to the idea of a Profile of a Graduate for students, in the sense that the competencies should emphasize knowledge, skills and dispositions that will lead to lifelong career success. This learner-centered, competency-based approach to building skills for adults and educators with different roles across the system could be a powerful tool to drive coherence in the systems that build the educator leadership, educator workforce professional learning, and student success outcomes, including pre-service training, credentialing requirements, induction, professional development, evaluation, and career pathways.

Certification and Licensure Requirements, and Educator Pre-Service Preparation

Traditional educator certification and licensure requirements based on one-size-fits-all schooling models can make it difficult for states and districts to build a workforce prepared for leading, designing and implementing competency-based learning environments. Most educator credentialing requirements currently focus on traditional roles and skills that do not reflect the methods, strategies and dynamics within a competency-based learning system. Educator preparation programs focus on the nuts and bolts of state licensure and credentialing requirements, which is one reason why we are not seeing a rapid increase in the shift to the more innovative pedagogical approaches in next generation learning taking hold in pre-service educator preparation programs.

Two notable exceptions to this rule are Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University, which take a competency-based approach in their educator pre-service programs. Educators who come from these programs are more likely to be comfortable teaching in a competency-based learning environment because they have experienced it during their pre-service training.

In addition, certain school networks have created new pathways to certification and graduate degrees, to train teachers to succeed in their innovative learning models. High Tech High, for example, created an Intern Program and an Induction Program to create pathways to certification that align with the school network’s emphasis on project-based learning. High Tech High then created a graduate school of education to teach experienced educators innovative learning strategies and how to apply these strategies in their schools and classrooms.

School leaders from Uncommon Schools, KIPP and Achievement First worked to develop the Relay Graduate School of Education program, which uses competency-based approaches for teachers and school leaders on how to develop the academic skills and character traits needed to succeed in college and life for all students.

Finally, the charter school management organization Match Education created the Sposato Graduate School of Education. Sposato offers a self-described “third way” for teacher preparation, combining the classroom-based training of traditional pre-service with intensive, ongoing residencies that put aspiring teachers into the classroom immediately, as with alternative certification routes such as Teach for America. According to the program’s website, what is different about the program is that residencies are exclusively in the highest performing charter schools that serve the most disadvantaged students, and that “training is hyper-prescriptive and detailed regarding the nuances of great teaching. Our year of training allows for extensive practice and coaching, to the point where subtle teaching moves become automatic.”5

Policymakers might consider how they can work together with school and district leaders, institutions of higher education and teacher preparation programs to better meet the needs of future-focused, competency-based systems in K-12 education and align certification, teacher licensure and accreditation.

In the long-term, there is a strong need to create an effective, coherent educator preparation system that prepares teachers for the realities of a competency-based system in K-12 education. States leading the way are beginning to encourage innovative approaches through pilots with competency-based districts and schools to design new program models that prepare teachers to meet the needs of all students. A final step will be to create pathways that are competency-based toward licensure and certification, then work with accrediting agencies to recognize these elements and promising practices for accrediting competency-based programs.

Creating Multiple, High-Quality Pathways to Educator Credentials and Development

In a competency-based system, students need multiple, high-quality pathways to high school graduation, higher education and workforce. In the same way, educators need multiple, high-quality pathways to credentials, advancement and development.

For pre-service training, policymakers can consider ways to leverage micro-credentials and other avenues to certify knowledge already gained through multiple pathways. Teaching candidates, through internships and community-based experience, could experience teaching hands-on, in controlled environments, to gain the skills they need to meet the needs of all students.

Teacher professional development should also be personalized, job-embedded, leveraging mentorships and positive relationships with other educators to create customized development pathways that are meaningful both to individual educators and meet system’s needs.

Just like students, educators need an array of high-quality pathways to meet their personalized professional needs and to address the capacity needs of school systems. Micro-credentials, discussed in the next section, hold great promise for assessing and credentialing key competencies for teachers in student-centered learning systems.

Facilitating Differentiated Roles for Educators

In student-centered learning models, educators often take on new roles as they collaborate to design customized pathways to graduation for every student. State teacher credentialing structures are based on grade and content areas and do not account for new personalized, competency-based learning models where educator roles and responsibilities are differentiated to create flexible, dynamic systems able to meet the needs of every student.  

For example, New Hampshire encourages local school districts to adopt policies that encourage extended learning opportunities (ELO) for learning outside of the traditional classroom, including apprenticeships, community service, online learning and internships.6 To facilitate these extended learning opportunities, New Hampshire school districts have created a new ELO Coordinator role that is distinct from the roles of classroom teachers or facilitators. Other examples of expanded or differentiated roles and functions for educators include subject matter experts across grade levels (such as math specialists for learning progressions), personalized learning instructional coaches, team teaching, coordinating specialized learning spaces such as makerspaces, teaching across multiple grades and content areas, and creating teacher leadership roles and pathways.

As policymakers seek to increase educator capacity to transform learning environments, they need to examine adult deployment strategies as well. Policymakers could collaborate with leading school leaders to identify those policy structures, like credentialing based on content area and grade, that can impede the proliferation of educator roles.


Micro-credentials are a tool to make educator preparation and development systems competency-based, personalized and relevant to systems’ and teachers’ needs. They hold great potential to transform the systems that develop educator capacity. Micro-credentials are competency-based credentials for professional learning that hold great potential to build the knowledge, skills and abilities to transform the system toward competency-based learning.

Micro-credentials are related to badging that recognizes demonstrated mastery of knowledge and skills – it helps to allow for modularity in the design of learning experiences to build educator capacity in a more flexible way and certify credit for the learning outcomes. States and districts are exploring personalized approaches to offering professional development that provide recognition of new knowledge, skills, and abilities through micro-credentials and badging. Future-focused states might consider how to think differently about credentialing and licensure policies to become competency-based around recognizing what educators know and are able to do. Micro-credentials also add value to conversations that explore how to differentiate teacher roles, offering accessible pathways for educators to gain the competencies they need for their specific role.

According to Digital Promise,7 the four key characteristics of micro-credentials are:

  • Competency-Based: They require educators to demonstrate their competence in discrete skills in their practice — either inside or outside the classroom;
  • Personalized: Teachers select micro-credentials to pursue — based on their own needs, their students’ challenges and strengths, school goals, district priorities, or instructional shifts;
  • On-Demand: Educators can opt to explore new competencies or receive recognition for existing ones on their own time, using an agile online system to identify competencies, submit evidence, and earn micro-credentials; and
  • Shareable: Educators can share their micro-credentials across social media platforms, via email, and on blogs and résumés.

Policymakers might begin to think about how micro-credentials could be used to transform the continuum of teacher professional learning, building capacity to transform learning environments to meet the needs of every student.

Follow this blog series:



Meeting Students Where They Are


Learn more:


1David Hood. The Rhetoric and the Reality: New Zealand Schools and Schooling in the 21st Century. Fraser Books, (2015).

2Zone of proximal development. (2009). In Penguin dictionary of psychology. Retrieved from Credo Reference database.

3New Hampshire Department of Education. Moving from Good to Great in New Hampshire: Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE), January 2016.

4Jobs for the Future & the Council of Chief State School Officers. Educator Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Teaching. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future, 2015.

5Sposato School of Graduate Education, 2015.

6 New Hampshire Department of Education. Extended Learning Opportunities.

7Educator Micro-Credentials. Digital Promise.