CompetencyWorks is an online resource dedicated to providing information and knowledge about competency education in the K-12 education system. Drawing on lessons learned by innovators and early adopters, CompetencyWorks shares original research, knowledge and a variety of perspectives through an informative blog with practitioner knowledge, policy advancements, papers on emerging issues and a wiki with resources curated from across the field. CompetencyWorks also offers a blog on competency education in higher education so that the sectors can learn from each other and begin to align systems across K-12, higher education and the workplace.

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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. (more…)

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What Do We Do Once We Know Where Students Are?

June 17, 2017 by

This is the fourteenth 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.

The only way to truly meet students where they are is for competency-based models to adopt a personalized approach to learning: an approach that accounts for students’ differing zones of proximal development with regards to specific cognitive skills, as well as within the physical, emotional, metacognitive, and other domains. In this section, we offer a prototypical framework designed to help practitioners operationalize a personalized approach in the academic realm.

At first glance, the notion of “meeting students where they are” might seem daunting, as it demands we attend to the unique, ever-evolving needs of each learner, every day. What about the eight year old student who struggles to decode? The new immigrant who didn’t learn to read in her native language? The teenager without an understanding of proportional thinking? What about the student in the same cohort who is ready for more “advanced” tasks or materials? Beyond the complex challenges related to academic skills and knowledge, we cannot ignore the significant range of learner difference in executive function and self-regulation skills,1 such as the ability to sustain focus on a task, rein in impulsive behavior, prioritize activities, or recognize when it’s time to ask for help or course-correct.

For many reasons the field is in the nascent stages of defining, in a concrete and comprehensive way, the distinguishing pedagogical practices of a personalized, approach.

In mature competency-based learning spaces, 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.2 In short, the architecture of competency-based structures places student agency as the capstone, and every element of the design exists to support it. In this way, a personalized approach is a differentiated or individualized approach, BUT, its deep commitment to student agency is the significant distinguisher: while differentiation and individualization are also approaches to meet student needs, these needs and the strategies to address them are identified by the teacher. A personalized approach places the students in the driver seat.3

Feature 1. Learner-Centered Classrooms Support Multiple Modalities

Learner-centered classrooms start by re-designing learning configurations (spaces, learner modes) and implementing high-impact instructional practices that nurture student learning, engagement, and metacognition. (more…)

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How Do We Know Where Students Are?

June 16, 2017 by

This is the thirteenth 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.

In the traditional system, grade-level curriculum is delivered to students based on their age, whereas competency-based systems assume that schools should be organized to meet students where they are in terms of academic, cognitive, and lifelong learning skills (growth mindset, habits of work and learning, metacognition, and social and emotional skills). In this blog, we address how to know where students are, what do we do once we know, and what strategies can help us navigate system constraints.

How Do We Know Where Students Are?

We cannot begin to answer the question, “How do we know where students are?” without first addressing the inherent assumptions that we bring to this very important question. Where students are. In relation to what, exactly? With younger students, we tend to look at gross and fine motor skill development, social-emotional development, and literacy and numeracy development. As students move into late childhood – eight or nine years of age – most systems begin the transition to content exploration, while continuing to support skill development. By the time students are ‘tweens and teens, the system’s priority is content coverage.

Key Assumptions:

    1. Student achievement has historically been defined in terms of student acquisition of broad content knowledge along a time-bound sequence that begins when children are eight or nine. The assumption that content knowledge is an appropriate measure of learning – after core literacy and numeracy is taught in the early grades – or that it is sufficient to prepare learners for the 21st century workforce is problematic for a number of reasons.
    2. A second key assumption is that our age-based approaches are fair and valid. It is promising to see standards emerge – such as Common Core Learning Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, and the C3 Framework for Social Studies – that prioritize the development of essential disciplinary and transdisciplinary skills and practices. The research basis of the standards provide critical clarity and transparency around the skills required for college readiness. The trick to meeting students where they are is to create learning science-informed pathways that support students in achieving the outcomes associated with the standards. Rather than coupling the standards with specific ages or grades, they would be coupled with learning progressions that provide guidance to students within their zone of proximal development, regardless of their age.
    3. The third key assumption is that teachers (and systems) are the “owners” of learning progressions, and solely responsible for using student performance data to make decisions about a student’s needs or next steps. In other words, it is teachers and administrators who must know where students are and make unilateral decisions about how to move students along. This notion is being challenged by practitioners in exciting ways, such that students are able to see and understand where they are in their own learning pathway, be involved in the planning of their pathway, and take ownership of daily and weekly decisions about their goals and priorities.

In critically examining these key assumptions of the old-paradigm accountability system, new opportunities emerge for designing truly learner-centered systems that identify where students are on their developmental path. In the section that follows, we describe a range of structural, pedagogical, and relational shifts that are essential to identifying where students are in a learner-centered, equity-oriented model. (more…)

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What Does It Mean to Meet Students Where They Are?

June 15, 2017 by

Sydney Schaef, Dixie Bacallao, and Antonia Rudenstine (left to right)

This is the twelfth 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.

At the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education, attendees will do an in-depth exploration of the relational, pedagogical, and structural dimensions of meeting students where they are. It is organized around three driving questions:

  • How do we know where students are?
  • What do we do, once we know?
  • Which strategies help us navigate systemic constraints?

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:

This work is not about meeting the demands of an efficiency-oriented accountability system for its own sake; it’s about ensuring all learners have equitable access to learning opportunities that foster agency and prepare them for life in the world. This is the orientation of learner-centered models, and it is indeed a radical departure from the industrial-age school model that dominates most schools today. (more…)

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Charting the Course for High Quality Personalized, Competency Education

June 14, 2017 by

This is the eleventh 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 In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System. 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 how we might be able to advance the field.

At the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education, we hope to advance ideas around quality in competency-based systems and lay the groundwork for what needs to happen to build high-quality personalized, competency-based systems every time. The purpose of this blog is to gather and recommend ideas for action steps to advance an understanding of high quality, personalized, competency-based systems and strategies to accelerate the design and implementation of high quality district systems and schools. We encourage you to brainstorm and prioritize recommendations for educators, school and district leaders, state and federal policymakers, funders, intermediary organizations, and technical assistance providers and any other key organizations. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

As you review the following, consider these questions:

  1. How might you change or strengthen these ideas offered below?
  2. What other projects, initiatives, or recommendations are needed to advance quality in competency-based systems and schools?
  3. Of all the projects listed here and discussed, which are the 3-5 most important ones to take on now?

A. Providing Exemplars in Each of the 4 Components of the Quality Framework (Structure, Culture, Pedagogical Philosophy, and Learning Experiences) to Support Early Stage Design and Implementation

Exemplars are essential in order to help people from across the field develop a vision of what CBE is, believe that it is viable by understanding key implementation steps, and build a sense of how competency-based education can reinforce student agency, personalized learning, and deeper learning. Even with the substantial documentation at CompetencyWorks about school models, there is a need for districts and schools to have a more close-up understanding of competency-based structures and their implications. This could include funding positions at districts with the most mature systems to coordinate site visits, funding travel for site visits, creating detailed documentation (written and video) of the models, and developing more detailed guidebooks. (more…)

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How Could We Build a Shared Understanding of Quality in Competency Education?

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This is the tenth 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 In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System. 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 how we might be able to advance the field.

In the previous articles, we’ve shared our best thinking to date about the structure and features of what would make up a high quality competency-based structure. This is a good start but there are a range of strategies for defining quality and the processes that we as a field might develop to help districts and schools strengthen their competency-based structures. This blog will introduce four approaches to how initiatives could be structured to begin to build a formal understanding of quality. As you consider the approaches described below based on outcomes, design, processes, and quality reviews, consider how each approach will be most helpful in the following:

  • Does it Drive Equity? How valuable and viable are these approaches in helping districts and schools create equitable systems that effectively serve students, particularly those who have been historically underserved?
  • Does it Make the Case for Expanding Competency-Based Education? In what ways can these approaches demonstrate that competency-based education is a better option than continuing with the traditional structures? How do they also build capacity within districts and schools to implement effective competency-based education structures? Are there any other approaches that should be included in the approaches described below?
  • Does this Contribute Meaningfully to the Field? What is the the best strategy to advance our understanding of how high quality, personalized, competency-based districts and schools are designed and operated? How might the field move forward in defining high quality in the medium-term (2-10 years) or long-term (10 years or more)? Are some strategies more useful than others at building capacity within districts and schools to design competency-based structure with quality?

In the paper In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System, we delve into these approaches in greater detail, examining the opportunities and challenges each presents, as well as examples. (more…)

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Nine Structural Domains of Competency Education, Part II

June 13, 2017 by

This is the ninth 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 In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System. 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 how we might be able to advance the field.

In this article, we describe the nine domains of a competency-based structure (remember: this is a draft and we want ideas about what is missing and what shouldn’t belong) and key questions that could open the door to discussions about quality. In the paper, you can also find exemplars and ‘look-fors’ – and we want to collect the best examples we can find over the next month.

WHAT IS THE WORK?

Structural Domain 1. Mission-Driven Districts and Schools Dedicated to Preparing Each and Every Student for Life, College, and Careers

Description of Structures – Beliefs, Policies, Operational Processes

One of the most powerful leverage points that states, districts, and schools have to transform their schools is the opportunity to expand expectation of student success. Success in college and careers takes much more than comprehension of the core academic subjects. Students need to become self-directed, lifelong learners with critical thinking and problem-solving skills to address challenges and take advantage of opportunities. They will also need skills such as communication, collaboration, and cultural competence to help them work in ever-changing, diverse workplaces. In order for students to develop these skills, they need to be actively learning, with opportunities to apply their skills in new contexts.  

Key Questions to Ask in Self-Assessment or District/School Reviews

  • What is the definition of school success or graduation outcomes that shapes the school mission and guiding principles?
  • What role have the community, parents, and students had in shaping the vision and mission?
  • How is the the mission actively referenced as a guide to make key decisions?
  • In what way is the district and school designed to help students develop all the skills identified in their graduate profiles or graduation expectations, including lifelong learning skills, higher order skills, and academic skills?
  • How will the community know if the district and school are achieving outcome goals for students? How will they know if the outcomes are equitable?  
  • How is the use of resources (facilities, money, staffing, and time) aligned with the mission and learning goals?

WHAT IS THE STRATEGY OR THEORY OF CHANGE? (more…)

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Nine Structural Domains of Competency Education, Part I

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This is the eighth 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 In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System. 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 how we might be able to advance the field.

The contribution of the participants of the Technical Advisory Group on quality was so powerful that we ended up moving far beyond our expectations in terms of the development of defining competency-based structures and what high quality would look like. In this article we explore a a way to think about what structure in schools and districts mean. This afternoon’s article will then highlight the features of quality we might look for.  As always, we really want your feedback on these ideas. We are particularly interested in ways that we might integrate the ideas introduced in the paper In Pursuit of Equality: A Framework for Equity Strategies in Competency-Based Education into the quality framework.

Developed by 100 innovators in 2011, the working definition of a high-quality competency-based education was designed to build a shared understanding of how a competency-based system functions. However, it does not precisely describe what the competency-based structure (beliefs, policies, and operational mechanisms) is that would replace the traditional structure. In this section, we hope to outline the specific structures that districts and schools should have in place while still highlighting the innovations and variations developed by districts and schools. At times, structures that are considered “must-haves” or “non-negotiables” are identified.

What are the Structures that Make Up a Competency-Based District and School?

Think of the structure as the architecture of a house. It’s the foundation, frame, and load-bearing walls. This paper organizes the structure of a district and school into nine domains, with each domain made up of the beliefs, policies, and processes that support learning and teaching. The way that the structure operates is likely to be shaped by policies and funding established by outside entities, including state or federal government, as well and the broader education system, including accreditation bodies and vendors.

Making the transition from the time-based system to a competency-based one requires the process of deconstructing the traditional structure and constructing a new one with great intentionality to ensure that it works effectively. To understand a structure, it is helpful to think about them as a mix of beliefs, policies, and operational processes.

Beliefs

The beliefs that people bring to their work will have a powerful impact on the entire organization. There will be a formal set of policies and processes based on espoused beliefs and an informal one based on the actual beliefs brought to bear. Thus, understanding the beliefs underlying each domain of the structure is important in identifying strengths and weaknesses in the competency-based structure. There are two beliefs that are absolutely essential to a quality structure for competency-based education: 1) that all students can and should learn to high standards and 2) the role of the growth mindset, with adults developing it within themselves as well as supporting it in students. These two beliefs demand that adults in the system challenge assumptions and unlearn habits and practices built upon sorting students and the fixed mindset. (more…)

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Exploring a Four-Part Quality Framework for Competency Education

June 12, 2017 by

This is the seventh 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 In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System. 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 how we might be able to advance the field.

Districts and schools are complex organizations with a complex goal helping students from diverse backgrounds and with diverse interests, aptitudes, and skills become prepared for the transition into adulthood, defined as readiness for college, careers, and life. In preparation for the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education, CompetencyWorks (in collaboration with thirty-some leaders from the field) developed a four-part framework to guide discussions around ensuring quality in competency-based structures: structure, culture, pedagogy, and learning experiences. We found that we needed some way to be able to talk about all the elements that make up competency-based, personalized systems that allowed us to look carefully at each piece and allowed us to see and explore the intersections.

This framework is obviously not inclusive of all the parts that make-up a district or school; human resources, budgeting, and the other areas of an organization that we refer to as administration are actually powerful ways that shape schools and the experiences of students. At some point, we need to begin to gather together the changes and practices that are happening within these parts of schools and districts and how they influence quality. (more…)

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Three Driving Questions for Developing High-Quality Competency-Based Systems

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This is the sixth 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. 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 how we might be able to advance the field.

One of my big a-ha moments in the process of the Technical Assistance Group on Quality (thanks to all of you!) is that we couldn’t define quality until we were able to explain what a competency-based structure was more precisely. Remember, we take the position that the traditional system is a barrier to both equity and excellence, as it is designed around a belief that some kids are just smarter than others and there isn’t much to do about it, so part of the job of schools is to rank and sort students. If we are going to identify the parts of the traditional system that are problematic, we are going to have to replace them with something else. That something else is competency-based education. Thus, the efforts to define quality started with the question of what a competency-based structure is.

Below is the introduction to the paper In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System. Tomorrow’s article will begin to answer these questions. We are looking forward to your reaction.

Efficacy, the degree to which something is successful in producing a desired result, is at the heart of competency-based education. After centuries of educating America’s children in schools that are designed to sort students, we are shifting from the traditional one-size-fits-all system and replacing it with a system that personalizes learning within a competency-based structure to ensure that every student is making progress toward college and career readiness (academic, higher order, and lifelong learning skills). In other words, competency-based education seeks to create a system that effectively supports students to learn to high expectations not for some, but for every student.

In order to advance the field of competency education, it is important that educators and policymakers create a shared understanding of what a high quality competency-based system looks like. Beginning to define what quality means in a competency-based system based on practitioner knowledge can expedite the process of states, districts, and school adopting these new structures and approaches. This includes clarifying how the structures and approaches incorporate equity strategies to ensure historically underserved students will benefit and thrive.  More importantly, having a shared understanding of high quality competency-based schools will position us to better serve and educate students today and not postpone it until some future date. We simply cannot allow students to continue to be passed on year after year to the next grade without the skills they need to be successful.

Attendees at the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education will explore three questions related to defining what high quality means in a competency-based district or school:   (more…)

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