Author: Nina Lopez, Susan Patrick, and Chris Sturgis

Charting the Course for the Next Phase of Competency-Based Education: Strengthening Understanding

March 1, 2018 by

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

It is up to us, to all of us who believe in and are implementing competency education, to take on the issues of equity, quality, meeting students where they are and ensuring that policy is fit for purpose. This blog series has explored each of the four issues that are paramount to address in order for competency education to fulfill its promise to provide and sustain a better educational system for our next generation. Piecemeal design, poor implementation, turning our backs on the practices that we know will provide greater equity, failing to respond to the needs of students, and continuing to rely on outdated policy structures will result in competency education fading away except for a few shining district examples and a collection of innovative school models. These are not issues for other people to do — but for everyone within their roles, organizations and networks to actively pursue to deepen our knowledge and develop collective responses.

Below are a number of ideas for action steps that can be taken to advance our knowledge and effectiveness in these issues. Some of these are action steps that iNACOL and CompetencyWorks will take on; others are initiatives for other organizations to consider or require substantial collaboration. Please consider these action steps as a starting point for discussion and not a finite list. Certainly, there are many ways to undertake these action steps in ways that build on the values of competency education and strategically engage other partners. For example, there are ways to put into practice the ideas below that will either build a diverse leadership or continue to emphasize white privilege. It is up to all of us to overcome the historical patterns of race and racism in the United States — in our professional lives, in our communities and in our schools. (more…)

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

February 22, 2018 by

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. (more…)

4 Threshold Concepts for Policy to Tackle in the Long Term to Support Competency Education

February 15, 2018 by

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

What ideas does state policy need to address in the long-term to create the conditions for a transformation to competency-based education systems designed to ensure equity, so all students can be truly ready for success? We intend to push current thinking beyond the assumptions that perpetuate root causes of inequity and the structural issues that perpetuate injustice. We are focusing on a strategy for policy to support systems change over the long haul toward competency-based systems that ensure mastery for all students and equity for all. We hope to inspire new ideas and launch dialogue among communities and state policy leaders.

Threshold Concepts: Key Issues for Policy to Tackle for the Long-Term

Threshold concepts are important concepts for policymakers to understand so that they drive better policy and address structural gaps in our education system. Threshold concepts are “core concepts, that once understood, are needed to transform a given subject.” They can help us think differently about what is possible in an equitable future education system where all students succeed, and how to address deep-seated systems design flaws across K-12 education. Threshold concepts are not policy issues, but they deeply impact policy. In this blog, we discuss our thinking around the core, or threshold concepts, that state policymakers might think about addressing for a long-term, sustainable shift to personalized, competency-based learning.

Threshold concepts to understand before we address action steps for policy-making are: (more…)

6 Strategies to Navigate System Constraints in Competency-Based Education

February 8, 2018 by

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

Personalized, competency-based systems strive to meet students where they are in their learning and development, holding all students to the same high standards and helping each student reach high levels of success. This does NOT mean a return to tracking. Meeting students where they are requires strategies to reimagine and redesign our school models around the needs of the individual, rather than the efficiency of the system. Currently, there is something of an accountability paradox at play in our educational system. Namely, 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 paradox, there are six critical, interlocking structures that will enable school models to become more effectively oriented around learner needs and outcomes rather than only focusing on operational efficiencies: (more…)

3 Common Features of Competency-Based Systems that Meet Students Where They Are

February 1, 2018 by

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

The field of education is in the midst of a dynamic process of innovation and redesign based on a stronger understanding of the learning sciences, maturation of a field of knowledge about how to best engage, motivate and build student agency, and how to use technology effectively within schools. For these reasons, the field is in the nascent stages of defining, in a concrete and comprehensive way, the distinguishing pedagogical practices that support a personalized approach to learning as compared to the one-size-fits-all of the traditional system.

In this blog, we offer examples to help practitioners operationalize a personalized approach in the academic realm. In mature competency-based schools, learners are active co-constructors of knowledge, rather than passive consumers of content. Learning is visibly and authentically connected to meaningful and important outcomes. Inquiry drives the learning process, as it does in the world beyond school. And finally, learning environments and experiences are purposefully designed to nurture the meta-cognitive, behavioral and motivational attributes of engaged, autonomous and adaptive learners. It is equally important for teachers to be thinking about where students are in terms of their ability as lifelong learners, including the ability to tap into a growth mindset, their social emotional skills, their metacognitive skills and the strength of their habits of success. (more…)

How Do We Know Where Students Are?

January 25, 2018 by

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

To meet students where they are, districts and schools need to create the culture, the structure, and build a shared pedagogical philosophy that will enable much stronger relationships and much greater responsiveness than the traditional K-12 education system was designed. Before meeting students where they are, we must first understand where students are academically, emotionally, developmentally, and experientially.

Understanding where students are requires honesty and objectivity. With that in mind, let’s start first by challenging some key assumptions within the current traditional system:

Next, a range of structural, pedagogical and relational shifts that are essential to identifying where students are in a learner-centered, equity-oriented model are described. These shifts are organized around three domains: (more…)

Meeting Students Where They Are so that Everyone Masters Learning

January 18, 2018 by

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

As we move toward the design of second generation competency-based models, there is an opportunity to anchor student learning and achievement in expansive, adaptable, and developmentally appropriate learning and development trajectories informed by the learning sciences. If we are to meet all students where they are, then our commitment must be not only to an uncompromising vision for high achievement — and in practical terms, this means college and career readiness — but also to the daily work of responding to students’ individual needs in a way that fosters optimal growth. (more…)

An Equity Framework for Competency-Based Education

January 11, 2018 by

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

An equitable educational system starts with a commitment to quality and excellence, is designed to personalize learning and embeds strong equity strategies into the core of the organization. This blog offers a framework for how states, districts and schools can develop an equity agenda within their competency-based systems.

The framework offers the following set of Equity Principles that can be use to create and embed equity strategies within personalized, competency-based systems. (more…)

Designing a Competency-Based System for Equity

January 4, 2018 by

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

The vision for educational equity is a fair, and just system where every learner, students and teachers alike, are thriving. In order to realize educational equity, we must openly acknowledge and then overcome the history of bigotry, discrimination, and oppression that has shaped communities and institutions, including our K-12 education system, and sadly continues to do so today. Inequity is often referred to as a cause of the tremendous educational disparities in achievement and attainment we see today. However, some also refer to inequity to describe the persistent unfairness of outcomes. For three centuries, advocates have demanded and organized to remove barriers for segments of our society — by gender, by color of skin, by language and for those with a disability — in pursuit of more equal resources, access and outcomes. While more equal resources and greater access remain necessary goals, these are inadequate to realize more equal opportunities for students. For that, a focus upon equity strategies, strategies that will produce greater fairness, is necessary. With so many different perspectives about equity, a discussion requires us to start by unpacking what equity means to ensure we are not talking past each other.

The National Equity Project defines educational equity:

Educational equity means that each child receives what he or she needs to develop to his or her full academic and social potential.

Working toward equity in schools involves:

  • Ensuring equally high outcomes for all participants in our educational system; removing the predictability of success or failures that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor;
  • Interrupting inequitable practices, examining biases, and creating inclusive multicultural school environments for adults and children; and
  • Discovering and cultivating the unique gifts, talents and interests that every human possesses.

Equally high outcomes, removing the predictability of success or failure, interrupting inequitable practices and cultivating students’ unique gifts make up the multi-pronged strategies that can guide communities, states, districts, schools and each of us towards educational equity. Please note, referring to students’ “potential” runs the risk of reinforcing a fixed mindset or notions that students have a predetermined amount of potential, some having more or less than others. Alternatively, “potential” can be understood in a more aspirational way, pushing us to look beyond what students have accomplished to date to focus instead on what more is possible. It is not for educators to determine potential but to help students discover and reach their potential.

Having a common set of shared and ambitious expectations for all students is critical to equity, but it isn’t enough. We posit that each student’s “potential” must include the set of common expectations for students described in this paper as prepared for college, career, and life. However, each student’s potential will be unique and goes beyond these shared expectations. Each student’s potential is a reflection of their unique passions, interests, talents and experiences. Equity pushes us to move beyond simply holding different students to a shared set of expectations towards understanding that each student approaches those expectations with a different set of personal experiences, skills and identities. Understanding a student’s individual “potential” is an important concept to unpack and a powerful starting point for discussions within each school community. Done well, these conversations drive equity by internalizing a shared understanding and commitment to equity. (more…)

4 Quality Design Principles for Teaching and Learning

December 28, 2017 by

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

What does high-quality teaching and learning look like in competency-based schools?

Competency-based schools create a shared understanding of teaching and learning based on the learning sciences to create a high-quality system that ensures each child’s success. There is no one right instructional method in competency-based schools, although there are implications for instruction and assessment. In a previous blog in this series, we introduced 16 Quality Design Principles as a common reference point for dialogue about what makes a competency-based system high quality. The 16 Quality Design Principles are organized into three categories: Culture, Structure, and Teaching and Learning. In this blog, we explore the 4 Teaching and Learning Design Principles.

4 Teaching and Learning Design Principles to Ensure High-Quality Competency-Based Systems

These principles relate to a theory and practice of teaching and learning that is based in research and is shared across a school.


Competency-based systems leverage a variety of instructional approaches. There is not a preferred approach. Whatever the approach it must be explicit, shared and grounded in research about learning, motivation and engagement. Responding effectively within a student’s zone of proximal development necessitates a well-developed understanding of effective practices. Pedagogy includes approaches to and uses of assessment as critical ingredients to responsive teaching. (more…)

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