Category: Equity

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.

If a competency-based system is designed to ensure that every student is learning and making progress towards the skills and knowledge for lifelong learning and preparation for college and careers, what do schools need to do in order for this to happen? They are going to have to learn how to meet students where they are — not just academically but in terms of their full development. This means knowing where students are in terms of academic performance levels, cultivating a growth mindset and social-emotional skills that shape how well students can stay engaged when learning is challenging, and cultivating the interests and topics that will ignite their motivation. Using a holistic lens to understand where students are and how to help them grow is clearly a complex process. The ideas offered in this blog are insights into this important activity and will require continued exploration and research.

The approach typically used in traditional systems is focused on exposing students to academic content with the content and duration of exposure determined by a student’s grade-level subject and at a pace designed to cover everything by end of year. As described earlier, students are then passed on to the next grade level regardless if they learned the content or not. As a result, students in a traditional system have vastly differing skills, knowledge of the content, and varied abilities to apply that knowledge in different contexts.

There is ample evidence that under these circumstances, the odds are stacked against significant numbers of students being able to access and master what they need when they need it because the learning experiences available to students may — but often do not — fall inside their zone of proximal development (ZPD). Students with skills above grade level may also disengage from boredom when they aren’t able to work in their ZPD. For example, the “reading” ZPD for an eleven-year-old who struggles with decoding is radically different from one who is flying through a Shakespearean play. Yet, they might both be in a sixth grade ELA class which is focused on summarizing a sixth grade text. In this way, their efforts to develop as readers becomes artificially constrained by the classroom learning experiences available to them: neither the student who needs to “reach back” to learn missed skills or content, nor the student who can “reach forward” due to already-mastered skills and knowledge, have access to the support they need within their ZPD. (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.

For each principle, we then offer reflection questions to generate discussion, guide reflection and trigger capacity building:



In what ways does the school culture promote a growth mindset, build trust and inclusivity?

The culture of schools is designed so that all students and adults, especially the most marginalized, feel safe and respected and can build trusting relationships that enable direct and productive feedback. Adults regularly experience and share their own learning and model a growth mindset for students. Students unfamiliar with a school’s dominant culture may lack fluency in the social cues and language that educators use to interpret students’ readiness for learning. Acknowledging the existence of a dominant culture is important in order to open dialogue regarding student communication and engagement.  (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…)

7 Quality Design Principles for Structure

December 21, 2017 by

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

Structure refers to the arrangement of, and relationship between, the elements of a system. It is the policies, processes and practices that influence decision making and the daily operations of a school. In a competency-based system, the structure is designed to support mastery by all students. 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 7 Quality Design Principles related to Structure.

7 Structure Design Principles to Ensure High-Quality Competency-Based Systems

Structure refers to the beliefs, organizational configurations, processes and policies that create the conditions for high-quality learning. Here are 7 Quality Design Principles for ensuring high-quality competency-based systems relating to structure:


When students advance upon demonstrated mastery, not the passage of time, educators direct their efforts to where students need the most help and make sure they learn the skills they will need in more advanced courses. Advancement upon mastery replaces the practice of promoting students, despite gaps in their knowledge and skills.

The practice of advancing upon mastery is grounded in research on motivation, engagement and learning. Students are more engaged and motivated when grading is seen as feedback that helps them focus on what they need to work. As a result, students may spend more time working in those areas that are more difficult for them. They may even advance beyond grade level in some academic domains, while more instruction is available to progress in those areas that are more challenging. Policies and processes organized around student advancement based on demonstration of mastery include: multiple opportunities and methods to demonstrate learning; targeted and timely instruction; coaching that supports students as they strive for the next level of mastery; transparent feedback and grading practices; and, monitoring pace and progress.


The continuum of student learning objectives, performance, growth and progress are transparent to all. Transparency of teaching and learning philosophy also facilitates student ownership and builds intrinsic motivation for students. When adaptive leadership is combined with greater transparency, organizational decision-making processes can increase participation and generate trust. As a result, everyone can be actively engaged in the process of continuous improvement and empowered leadership. (more…)

5 Quality Design Principles for Culture

December 14, 2017 by

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

Culture refers to the beliefs, perceptions, relationships, attitudes, practices, rituals, routines and rules (both formal and informal) that inform the day-to-day interactions of people at a school. In the 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 5 Quality Design Principles related to Culture.

5 Culture Design Principles to Ensure High-Quality Competency-Based Systems

A school’s culture is the daily manifestation of its core beliefs; adults’ beliefs about themselves and their students; students’ beliefs about themselves and the adults around them; and beliefs about the outcomes that a school seeks to make possible with and for students. The school culture can be found in the relationships, the formal and informal routines and rituals, and in what gets attention and what doesn’t. School and district leadership, whether intentionally or not, influence school culture. Thus, the leadership and management strategies used will reinforce or undermine school culture.


Equity is grounded in the belief that fairness means that each person receives what they need to succeed, rather than the same as everyone else. Thus, schools with an equity culture must provide teachers with the opportunity to get to know their students and the flexibility to respond to them. An equity culture is grounded in building strong trusting relationships between individuals that can support dialogue, reflection and learning. Schools that are building upon a culture of equity include in their principles of teaching a set of explicit strategies to embed cultural responsiveness and principles of Universal Design for Learning. Similarly, they turn to structures and processes such as continuous improvement to root out bias and institutional practices that contribute to inequity. We simply can not reach mastery for all students without addressing inequity. (more…)

Building Shared Understanding of Quality through Design Principles

December 7, 2017 by

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

In the recent CompetencyWorks report, authors introduce 16 Quality Design Principles to build shared understanding and help states, districts and schools plan and develop competency-based education systems and personalized learning approaches. To be clear, quality does not require a single model or approach. In fact, schools and districts with strong results find themselves engaged in an ongoing cycle of continuous improvement and reflection. However, we offer these design principles as a common reference point for dialogue about what makes a competency-based system high quality.

In education, quality has a moral component to it. Before diving into the constituent parts and examples of quality, it is important to remember that quality matters because it directly influences our ability to make good on our social contract with students and our broader community. While producing high-quality schools may require attention to technical issues, it must start with a belief in the moral imperative of supporting and empowering the next generation of adults. In fact, it is the very beliefs, assumptions and values that shape the culture of a competency-based school that make the structure so powerful. The competency-based structure will falter if it rests on the beliefs and assumptions upon which the traditional system was built.

Schools have implemented competency-based education models for decades. Recent years have seen an increase in the number of districts and schools adopting competency-based education with a handful of states seeking to create innovation space, pilots or a vision for transforming the education systems across the entire state. As the number of competency-based schools has expanded, some have done so with a deep foundational understanding of the purpose, culture and key elements of competency-based education. Others have not, instead treating it as a technical reform or resorting to piecemeal implementation. As a result, some competency-based schools have not always served kids in a way that fulfills the promise of this model. This means that many students are not benefitting as much as they could and puts scaling of competency-based education at risk. (more…)

Competency-Based Education and Personalized Learning Go Hand in Hand

November 30, 2017 by

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

Competency-based structures focus upon each student’s unique K-12 educational journey while ensuring that all students emerge from their K-12 experience ready to pursue and succeed in the postsecondary pathway of their choice. In this way, they are designed for equity with a focus upon responsiveness, consistency, transparency, fairness and continuous improvement. As the learning sciences tell us, it is important to personalize learning rather than depend on the one-size-fits-all instruction and curriculum of the traditional system. In fact it would be nearly impossible to have all students reach college and career readiness without doing so.

Competency-based education assumes that schools will meet students where they are; personalized learning is an approach to optimizing a school’s pedagogical strategy to effectively support each student, drawing on research about learning, motivation and engagement. In schools using personalized learning, students are active learners with:

  • Choice in how they learn,
  • Voice to co-create learning experiences and express their own ideas,
  • Options to personalize their pathways, and
  • Leadership opportunities in which they can shape or contribute to their own environment.

In order to become active learners who have a sense of ownership of their education, students need to have the right mix of mindsets and skills. Schools invest in helping students build the growth mindset and academic mindset as well as the habits of success and social-emotional skills they need to be self-directed learners and engage in productive struggle. Schools play a critical role in creating the learning opportunities and coaching that students need to successfully learn how to learn. Instruction is designed to meet students where they are, taking into account their prerequisite skills, mindsets, habits and interests. (more…)

How Competency-Based Education Differs from the Traditional System of Education

November 16, 2017 by

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

Across the country, schools, districts and states are replacing the traditional, time-based structure with one that is designed to help each student reach proficiency. Educators organize learning in a variety of ways that respond to students and are designed to motivate and engage students in mastery of their own learning. Competency-based structures are also designed to ensure students reach proficiency so that students and parents are confident that their students are learning what they need to as they advance towards graduation.

Below is the working definition of competency-based education. (Please note: the working definition is being updated and a logic model being developed to be released in second quarter of 2018).

Students advance upon demonstrated mastery — By advancing upon demonstrated mastery rather than on seat time, students are more engaged and motivated, and educators can direct their efforts to where students need the most help.


Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students — With clear, transparent learning objectives, students have greater ownership over their education.


Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs — Students receive the supports and flexibility they need, when they need them, to learn, thrive and master the competencies they will need to succeed.


Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students — New systems of assessments give students real-time information on their progress and provide the opportunity to show evidence of higher order skills, whenever they are ready, rather than at set points in time during the school year.


Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions — Personalized, competency-based learning models meet each student where they are to build the knowledge, skills and abilities they will need to succeed in postsecondary education, in an ever-changing workplace and in civic life.

The section below illustrates key differences between competency-based education as compared to traditional education systems, and offers examples of how competency-based systems can embed an intentional focus upon equity. (more…)

Why a Competency-Based System Is Needed: 10 Ways the Traditional System Contributes to Inequity

November 9, 2017 by

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

Before exploring key issues in a competency-based system, it is valuable to unpack why the traditional system is an obstacle to creating high-achieving schools and equitable outcomes.

The strategies used by districts in response to state accountability exams under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), including one-size-fits all instructional strategies and delivering grade level curriculum regardless of what students know, exposed the traditional system for what it is: a sorting system. Despite implementing a series of education reforms and programs, many schools struggle to produce better outcomes largely because the traditional system is not set up to do so. Despite teachers’ persistent best efforts to support every student, the traditional system passes students on before they have mastered each stage of learning. Those who have mastered the skills continue on a path towards graduation and college. For those who have not, little is offered to help them learn what was expected. The result is a new set of students each year who may not have the necessary prerequisite skills and knowledge to take on the content offered by each successive year’s teachers. This sets up teachers and students alike for failure. This sorting function of traditional education is exacerbated by unequal and inequitable school resources that continue to haunt the education system.

10 Flaws in the Traditional System

The traditional system is simply not designed to produce the goals we have set for it, or that our children, communities and nation so desperately need and deserve. There are ten primary flaws in the traditional system that can be corrected by redesigning the system for success in which all students achieve mastery. These flaws include that the traditional system: (more…)

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