Taking the Long View on Policies for Competency-Based Education

Competency-based education is one of the most promising practices for improving education across the U.S. for students of all backgrounds, but there are some serious challenges inherent in efforts to scale it to a state or national level. Much like personalized learning, it demands empathy and understanding of each student and where they are at in their learning journey; scaling this in a measurable way that ensures efficacy of implementation is a long, complicated path.

This is made even more challenging by the current status quo for assessment. How can we advocate for policies that will move us toward competency-ed when both NCLB and ESSA took the in-hindsight-misguided approach of measuring all students off of the same standards and at the same time relative to their age cohort? Even more challenging, how can we build momentum when concepts such as accountability and assessment continue to be conflated in public discourse?

iNACOL’s recent report, Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education, written by Susan Patrick, Maria Worthen, Natalie Truong and Dale Frost with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Barr Foundation, Donnell-Kay Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, is a must-read foundation for any policymaker or lobbyist seeking to affect change toward competency-based education.

The report starts by providing a foundation for understanding competency education in the context of the last 20 years, before moving on to discuss the intricacies of scaling. The bulk of the report is focused on the following three areas:

1) Key Issues for Policy to Tackle for the Long-Term

The authors view the following “Threshold Concepts” as the fundamental components of effective shifts toward competency-based education:

  • Certifying Learning
    • Issue to Tackle: Redefining Success
    • Issue to Tackle: Meaningful Qualifications
  • Assessment Literacy
    • Issue to Tackle: Accountability as Continuous Improvement
  • Pedagogical Innovations Based on Learning Sciences
  • Meeting Students Where They Are
    • Issue to tackle: Building Teacher Professional Judgment

“Measuring students’ learning based on one point of proficiency at one point in time is insufficient to capture the depth and breadth of student learning. It is also insufficient data to provide the ongoing support and scaffolds students need,“ the authors argue. They then go on to explore “alternatives to the American system of time-based credits and transcripts. Internationally, at least 47 countries (not including the U.S.) have developed a national qualifications framework, or a system of competency-based qualifications that form linkages between K-12, higher education, and the needs of the future workforce. Qualifications systems provide flexible pathways for learning and offer accountability with evidence.”

By focusing on the above “Threshold Concepts,” the authors argue, EdLeaders can develop “transparent accountability systems that support and empower rapid and constant improvements in learning and student growth toward success for college, career and life.”

2) Ways That States Are Beginning the Shift to Competency-Based Education

The second main section of the report offers a number of on-ramps for states looking to put entry-level policies in place to enable the creation of “space for new learning models, while a state that already has made some progress may be contemplating some bolder, more comprehensive steps toward transformation.”

3) Charting the Course

The final main section of the report covers action steps for a number of the more challenging aspects of moving toward competency-based education, including:

  • Building a vision and long-term plan,
  • developing policy that supports building leader and educator workforce capacity,
  • policies that support building assessment literacy, and
  • aligning higher education to K-12 competency-based models.

Overall, the report more than meets its goal of “sparking conversation around core concepts that policy needs to address to achieve sustainable systems transformation toward personalized, competency-based education systems.” By balancing its tall orders (including the call-to-action that “continuously improving on the goals of the education system, including the role of teachers and students, the use of time, the purpose and nature of assessments, the allocation of resources, learning model designs and the role of schools within the broader context of the community, is necessary to achieve lasting change.”) with practical steps for EdLeaders and policymakers at all stages of the shift to competency-based models, the authors provide a powerful roadmap for a more competency-based future.

Find the full report here.

For more on competency-based education, see:

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Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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1 Comment

Eric Eisaman

I truly believe the next big step forward for our education system is to fully embrace project based learning where validated student proficiency evidence is always available to students, parents, and other educational stakeholders and students are provided with alignment scores which describe how well their evidence suggests they are preparing for particular learning pathways.


Eric Eisaman

Here is a good example project for project based learning.

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