Meeting Students Where They Are: Navigating System Constraints?

June 18, 2017 by

This is the fifteenth 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 Meeting Students Where They Are. 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.

Meeting students where they are is a structural challenge and will involve the work of reimagining and redesigning our school models around the needs of the individual, rather than the efficiency of the system. There is something of an accountability paradox1 at play in our educational system; namely, that the very accountability system that led to much greater transparency about the performance of the education system and its inequity is also holding the traditional system that produces inequity in place. Despite this, there are five critical, interlocking structures that will enable school models to become more effectively oriented around learner needs and outcomes rather than around operational efficiencies (without entirely ignoring the need for efficiencies in the system in order to respond to systemic constraints):

  • Modularizing learning experiences and making them available to all students creates the opportunity for students to both “reach back” to address gaps in skills and knowledge, and to reach “over” or “forward” to pursue passions or deepen learning.
  • An assessment strategy that is backwards-mapped from college-/career-readiness makes it possible for schools and systems to ensure that students have ample opportunities to practice and master core competencies.
  • Personalizing students’ learning paths allows both students and teachers to explore learning experiences in ways that meet students within their zone of proximal development, providing timely and differentiated supports as a matter of daily practice.
  • Organizational supports for learning should foster student agency, motivation, and engagement in order to ensure that supports avoid becoming enablers, limiting student growth and progress.
  • Flexible schedules support student choices about how to use their learning time, while also creating critical opportunities for teachers to provide interventions, feedback, and personalized learning experiences.

The connective tissue between these supports is a robust learning management and tracking system that provides young people, teachers, and families with real-time access to both learning experiences and rich data regarding progress.2

Strategy 1. Designing Modular Learning Experiences, Available to All

This is one of the weightiest challenges for competency-based programs, but the benefits of tackling it cannot be overstated. There are two specific challenges to be navigated: First, while the number of available tech-based resources is growing almost exponentially, there are few if any resources that are inquiry-driven, culturally responsive, organized around research-based learning progressions,3 and organized around meaningful performance assessments. Even fewer are designed to meet the needs of students who are struggling or “off-track,” or students with specific learning needs. This is a critical issue for the field to address as we move into the design of second generation competency-based models.

Second, if we truly want to meet students where they are, we must all be able to access a full range of skill- and content-based modules, as they are needed: a sixteen year old recent immigrant who did not learn to read in her native language must be able to access learning experiences that focus on learning to read and write. An eleven year old who has pursued a passion in geometric theorems shouldn’t be asked to wait several years to access school-approved courses in order to “receive credit.” And students of any age who have yet to learn how to read a map or distinguish between countries and continents should have a way to develop this competency at whatever moment makes sense: either because of a developing interest or passion, or because it is part of an established benchmarking process or learning progression.

At the classroom, school, or district level, the most significant challenge is either commissioning modules from experts or supporting practitioners as they develop the capacity to design modules that truly allow students to explore passions, develop agency, address gaps in skills and conceptual understanding, and develop college and career-oriented competencies. Beyond this, modules can be designed and hosted on an array of free and inexpensive platforms.

Strategy 2. Designing An Assessment Strategy for Competency-based Schools

Tightly linked to the design of competency-based modules is the establishment of an assessment model that is responsive to learner needs and demonstrations of readiness. Because of the inherent variability in student preparedness and learning rates, the strategy cannot be time-based. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be benchmarks that support student forward movement; merely to make the case that most current time considerations are more about programmatic efficiency (it’s much easier for an organization to hold a graduation ceremony once each year than to establish several graduation opportunities for students) than they are about meeting students needs, or celebrating their readiness, in real-time.

At the classroom, school, or district level, there are some concrete steps that can be taken to support students in becoming competent in both the skills and products required in college and careers. A few years ago, we surveyed the syllabi of core freshman courses at a number of colleges and universities (some were highly competitive: MIT; others, barely so: Alma College in Michigan). The goal was to deepen our understanding of the term “college-ready.” Our theory was that if we understood what is required of college freshmen, we could map backwards to determine what strong preparation should entail, even for struggling students. What we learned: there is surprising similarity in the tasks that colleges will assign.

“In effect, the projects of college require students to be able to read widely, deeply and rapidly, while producing a high volume of sophisticated, analytic work, more or less on demand.”4 If this is what many colleges expect, then one of the key ways to meet students’ needs is to ensure that they are sufficiently prepared for the rigors of these tasks before they graduate.

One of the hallmarks of effective competency-based assessment is that students have multiple opportunities to both practice and demonstrate competencies. This can be challenging to ensure, especially if one is planning backwards from college-/career-readiness. For students who are struggling, one of the most effective strategies is to focus performance tasks squarely on the few tasks they are guaranteed to face in college, and give them as many opportunities as possible to practice these so that their products are both strong AND generated rapidly. Assessment mapping is a highly strategic process that can support schools and districts in the work of ensuring that students have multiple opportunities, both within and across courses, to improve their competency on specific performance tasks over time.

Strategy 3. Personalizing the Path

Schools and districts that are able to develop a full scope of competency-based modules alongside a college-/career-assessment strategy and opportunity map will be well positioned to begin personalizing the path toward graduation. When we think about personalization, it is helpful to imagine a two-dimensional grid: we have choices related to the extent to which we allow for personalized and choice-driven learning experiences, and we have choices related to the extent to which we allow for the personalization of the outcomes.

Defining Graduation Pathways: Inputs and Outputs on a Continuum

One of the powerful opportunities that emerges within competency-based structures is to shift from time-based course credits (the bottom left quadrant of the grid) to a more personalized approach. In a fully personalized approach (top right quadrant), students define both the learning pathway and the outcomes to some significant degree – though preferably with guidance from adults. In the lower right quadrant, a highly personalized system enables students to define important aspects of their learning pathway, but there are a fixed number of pathways with a predefined set of expectations for graduation (an approach often found in Career and Technical Education programs). In our efforts to build a more equitable education system, most schools will seek to find a balance between ensuring students build all the academic skills they need to open doors to college and careers while also providing opportunities for students to build skills and knowledge based on their interests and goals.  

Nationally, the majority of existing schools and systems live in the lower left quadrant, where there is very little meaningful choice in the learning pathway and in the outcome. Most first generation competency-based models live in the top left or bottom right quadrants: pushing the boundaries of the industrialized model, but constrained or aligned in some critical ways. Unfortunately, most tech-oriented learning resources and LMSs maintain these constraints by offering tightly sequenced, standardized courses with little opportunity for students to explore, make substantive learning choices, or practice and track competency work across multiple learning experiences and contexts.

As we move into the design of second generation models, we hope to see the launching of programs that push toward a more robust embodiment of personalization, (the top right quadrant of the grid), though each school, district, and state will need to consider where it can effectively live on this intersecting continuum of personalization, given its particular context and attendant constraints. The work of Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey has contributed greatly to articulating the qualities and components of personalized learning in this quadrant.5

Strategy 4: Organizing timely, differentiated supports

Clearly, the focus of this paper is an articulation of the timely, differentiated academic supports that will allow students to be met where they are: from scaffolding to learner-centered pedagogical practices; from fully accessible learning experiences with modular units to assessment systems that provide multiple opportunities to practice; and organizing learning around both standards and research-based learning progressions to developing nuanced and continual ways to gather formative assessment data. Here, we briefly turn our attention to a few of the structural supports that can make it possible for adults to encourage students to take risks, seek help, and achieve or maintain pacing expectations.6

Effective competency-based programs have learned that in order to ensure that students truly become competent, it is crucial to allocate time in ways that assume variability in the pace at which students learn: if some students need material to be retaught, or if they need opportunities to address foundational skills and concept gaps, there must be dedicated time (and staff) in the day, week, and term where support can be accessed. At Noble High School,7 the primary “building blocks” of the schedule are Interdisciplinary Academies and “KnightTime8 (a combination of advisory and intervention in which students meet with advisors to goal-set and determine how they will maximize their KnightTime for the rest of the week). Noble uses a block schedule for academies, and KnightTime is programmed for four forty-five minute periods per week. Students are organized into heterogeneous “academies” made up of students from various academic levels, genders, socioeconomic statuses, and other factors. Students remain with the same set of teachers throughout their entire high school experience.  

One of the desired outcomes AND key ingredients of competency-based models is student agency. Competency in any domain rarely occurs without a sense of personal commitment and power pulling us toward a goal. In crafting supports for students, this is essential to keep in mind: as mentioned above, some supports actually dampen agency.9 Some of the supports that nurture agency in competency-based models:

One critical challenge to meeting students where they are is systemic policy constraints: a high school with students with early literacy skills is challenged to hire a teacher with the appropriate training because of certification requirements. Schools who hope to use summer as an opportunity to close achievement gaps are limited by requirements for summer school course crediting and staffing contracts. Programs that hope to legitimate a rich array of extended learning opportunities are hindered by the need to organize around “teachers-of-record.”

Strategy 5. Instituting Flexible Scheduling

Modular scheduling is the next piece of this puzzle: as learning experiences, assessment, and personalization become intertwined, practitioners and young people will require important adjustments to the organization of time: meeting students where they are requires us to create more flexibilities in our scheduling so that we can respond to needs, goals, and interests as they arise. The research on “flow” – the experience of being completely immersed in an experience10 – reminds us that deep learning requires uninterrupted time and opportunities to explore ideas, following the threads of concepts into new domains of learning. The achievement of competency or mastery in any realm requires long periods of flow, wherever one is on a learning path. Traditional bell schedules inhibit flow, as students move from class to class and content area to content area, dipping into new learning briefly and quickly moving on to the next experience.

To meet students where they are requires thinking strategically about how the school day, week, and year are organized in order to ensure that students literally have the time to pursue their interests and passions, in addition to addressing critical gaps in their understanding and skills.11 Schools are beginning to think creatively about schedules, using approaches such as the flex-mod schedule,12 where the day is broken into short blocks (15, 20, or 30 minutes in length), and modules of varying lengths of time are constructed from these short blocks. Typically, students have time each day that is officially unscheduled, where they have the opportunity to make meaningful choices about the focus of their learning. At Bronx Arena High School, in New York City, each student is assigned to an Arena, co-facilitated by a teacher and a youth developer.13 Arena blocks meet daily for four hours, and during this time, students make choices about which coursework to undertake. Students typically enroll themselves in one to three courses and move at their own pace through the coursework, guided by the school’s generic pacing recommendation of five tasks per day.

Integrating these five strategies (accessible, modularized learning experiences; coherent assessment strategies that provide multiple opportunities to practice and demonstrate essential skills and deep understanding; personalized learning pathways; robust timely, differentiated supports; and flexible schedules that nurture students’ flow experiences) is the systemic work needed to truly meet students where they are.

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Meeting Students Where They Are

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1Sturgis, Chris. “Meeting Students Where They Are: The Accountability Paradox (Part 1).” Competency Works, 5 May 2016,

2See iNACOL’s  May 2016 report: Glowa, Elizabeth, J. Goodell. Student-Centered Learning: Functional Requirements for Integrated Systems to Optimize Learning,

3Hess, Karin. Developing & Using Learning Progressions as a Schema for Measuring Progress. National Center for Assessment, 2008. Mosher, Fritz. The Role of learning progressions in standards-based education reform. 2001. CPRE Policy Brief #RB-52. Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education. DOI: 10.12698/cpre.2011.rb52.

4 Rudenstine, Antonia. “#College Ready? Designing Projects for Historically Underserved Students.” Bloom, reDesign, 15 Oct. 2016,

5Bray, Barbara and Kathleen McClaskey. How to Personalize Learning: A Practical Guide for Getting Started and Going Deeper. Corwin, 2017.

6Sturgis, Chris; L. Shabulla.The Learning Edge: Supporting Student Success in a Competency-Based Learning Environment: 2012.

7Sturgis, Chris. “Noble High School: Creating Timely, Differentiated Supports.” Competency Works, 2 Dec. 2015,

8 Noble High School’s “KnightTime” schedule can be found at

9Ferguson, Ronald, et al. The Influence of Teaching: Beyond Standardized Test Scores–Engagement, Mindsets, and Agency. The Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, Oct. 2015, p. 1.

10Nakamura, Jeanne and Csikszentmihályi, Mihaly. “Flow Theory and Research”. In C. R. Snyder Erik Wright, and Shane J. Lopez. Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press, 20 December 2001. pp. 195–206; Cherry, Kendra. “What is Flow?”. Very Well, 6 May 2016,

11Springpoint has a useful collection of resources for the design and implementation of new school models: See also, Diana Lebeaux’s recent blog: Flexible School Schedules–Old Problem, New Solutions. CCE Blog: Feb. 2017.

12This document, from the College and Career Academy Support Network at the University of California Berkeley, provides several examples of flexible modular (“flex-mod”) scheduling:

13Rudenstine, Antonia and Sydney Shaef. Bronx Arena High School: Multimedia Monograph. 2016,

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