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Aurora Institute

Ways that States Are Beginning the Shift to Competency-Based Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

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

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

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

There are many different entry points for policymakers wishing to enable the shift to a more personalized, competency-based K-12 education system in their state.

States that do not yet have any enabling policies in place may wish to take one or two incremental, initial steps to create space for new learning models, while a state that already has made some progress may be contemplating some bolder, more comprehensive steps toward transformation. We will not attempt to thoroughly discuss each entry point in this blog, however, we will highlight the promising policies most states are starting with in their journeys. The iNACOL report, Promising State Policies for Personalized Learning, goes into each of these policy levers, with examples of specific policies and practices that are active in different states.

The graphic below summarizes the different entry points that policymakers could discuss to catalyze transformation of K-12 education in their state, with varying levels of state leadership:

Click Image to Enlarge

For those policymakers who choose to lead this transformation, we offer the following issues as areas ripe for change. Each merits more discussion before offering potential solutions; however, we believe they are important to identify now and offer ideas for first steps. These issues are foundational and, if addressed effectively, go a long way towards creating the conditions for high-quality competency-based systems to seed and thrive.

Inequitable Funding Systems and Formulas as well as Resource Allocation

One driver of inequity is the disparity in school resources that persists across our public education system. The structures that drive or even permit these disparities to exist are encoded in state and district policies. School finance formulas, state funding mechanisms, local policies and community contributions create significant differences in resources at the school level that are often unrelated to differences in need. Equity in school funding means that resource allocation — financial or otherwise — enables each local community the capacity to do what it takes to ensure every student can succeed. Some questions that merit attention include, “How much school funding is enough?” and, “How can we support ‘resource literacy,’ the ability to access, interpret and make decisions about the allocation of available resources in ways that are responsive to student outcomes and needs?”

Teacher Recruitment, Preparation and Professional Learning

Most teachers in our public schools today did not complete their own K-12 education in a competency-based system. In order to prepare educators to teach students in a competency-based environment, we need to provide them with opportunities to experience these environments firsthand. A high-quality system designed for equity also has implications for the diversity and competencies of pre-service candidates. All of this implies a dramatic change in how we think about teacher pre-service training, licensure 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 work in high-stakes, low-pay and low-trust conditions. A passion for teaching is an important prerequisite, but it is not enough.

A competency-based system of educator preparation and development would provide a seamless continuum in which aspiring educators build and master instructional competencies, demonstrate their own competencies through the licensure/certification process, and upon entering the profession, access customized professional development and evaluation opportunities to ensure continuous improvement throughout their careers.

To achieve long-term, sustainable change, competency-based education must “define its own space” for what educator capacity development systems need to look like and achieve. Some potential next steps for state and local policymakers to consider include:

  • Convene diverse stakeholders to identify challenges and opportunities, and define the goals for an effort to redesign the systems that build and certify educator capacity.
  • Conduct a scan of the current schools and practitioners to identify promising practices, programs and policies that are already emerging. This would include attention to local education agencies and charter management organizations that have their own teacher preparation or induction programs focused upon personalized, competency-based learning, identifying barriers to accreditation, and capacity needs for scaling to a broader set of schools.
  • Chart a course of action to effectively attract and support diverse educators to meet student needs in competency-based education systems. This effort would include activating student voice to inform systems and build the next generation of educators.

“Right-Sizing” the Role between Federal, State and Local Policies

The most recent reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is organized around a central goal to shift the balance of power from federal to state government in education. This shift presents an opportunity for states to create new paradigms for public education within their communities. However, it also highlights a capacity challenge for local and state leaders who want to put forth a new vision for our education and lead the design of policy environments that support high-quality competency-based systems.

Stakeholder Engagement

Equity must be by design, not something that is retrofitted to the current K-12 education system. How can we think more deeply and broadly about engaging diverse stakeholders in truly ongoing and sustainable ways? This engagement goes far beyond town hall meetings to shape ESSA plans, both in terms of substance and in form. For example, how do we diversify the forums and the participants? How can we facilitate and build capacity for engagement at all levels and sectors of our education system, to ensure that diverse viewpoints are included and brought to bear? This engagement also has implications for building new models of reciprocal accountability in which local, state and federal governments and stakeholders all have “skin in the game” for ensuring students are succeeding, no matter what pathway or learning modality they pursue.

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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