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How State Policies Help or Hinder Competency-Based Education

A shift to learning by mastery can really go far with policy support at the state level.

For years, the traditional education system in the U.S. has focused on how much time students spend learning, what curriculum and instruction they receive, and which letter grade they earn on their assignments. But a new system based on mastering skills in sequence is entering the picture. State policy, however, doesn't always support competency-based education, which often stunts its potential.

School districts bump against time requirements that call for students to sit in a seat for 180 days, for example, which doesn't necessarily mean students learn everything they need to in that time. Students often are moved from grade to grade, even though they have serious gaps in their reading skills or math. And on the other end, high-performing students have to wait for everyone else to understand a concept before they can move on to the next one. 

With competency-based education, schools are trying to reinvent the system. Instead of moving students ahead based on chronological age, they move along at the pace they learn best -- quickly through concepts that are easy for them, and slower for concepts that are difficult. And they have to demonstrate that they understand those concepts and skills before they can move on.

But it's not quite that simple, as they often have to do it within the confines of policies created for the traditional era of schooling. And that's a challenge for forward-thinking education leaders.

"When you really start to innovate to personalize learning, those school leaders that are leading the change and pioneering new learning environments in competency education quickly start running into state regulations that a more traditional system has," said iNACOL CEO Susan Patrick. 

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A few ways exist to tackle this challenge. Some states provide waivers to school districts that want to try something different like competency-based education so they can do so without being restricted by the current laws. This way, they work together more as partners rather than top-down compliance police. Other school districts find a way to at least start competency-based education within the time they're required to have students in school by rearranging how they structure their school days.

States like New Hampshire pre-emptively review their policies to see what policies could potentially cause problems in a competency-based environment. Then they fix those policies so educators can operate in a flexible environment that allows them to try new things. 

Once school districts have already begun to move toward this type of learning environment, their leaders often push for legislative changes at the state level. The reverse happens too, with policymakers seeing low graduation rates or other problems that could be addressed by policy changes that promote a new model. 

Whether change happens from the bottom up or the top down, policy changes give school districts the freedom to explore ways to teach students that make a difference.

"We know that students learn in different ways and at different rates, and so if we can redesign our education systems to build on the strengths that students have and to help identify the gaps and support them in learning the material, we know that powerful innovations through competency-based education can help ensure that every student has those skills," Patrick said.

Technology plays an important role in competency-based education because it's difficult for a teacher to personalize learning for 25 or more students who don't learn the same. Digital learning software, websites and other material identify student learning gaps and give them personalized playlists that appropriately challenge them.

But without changing the system and the policies that support it, this infusion of digital learning doesn't make that much of a difference. The biggest takeaway from a June iNACOL report on competency-based learning is that school districts identify learning goals when they design a personalized learning program. That starts with figuring out the instructional model to use, how to design the teaching and learning process, and what that means for instruction and assessment. Then school leaders can think about what technology to use to reach those goals.

"It's not just about integrating technology into old models," Patrick said. "It's really about changing the entire model around ensuring mastery on every standard."