K-12 education leaders and teachers interested in competency, but policy stands in the way

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New KnowledgeWorks study shows large interest in competency education with little action

Without significant policy change, (educators) will be forced to work in two systems simultaneously: the competency-based system they believe will prepare graduates for future success and our traditional, time-based system.

A large percentage of innovative school districts, leaders, administrators and teachers are interested in competency education, but have been unable to implement this new approach to teaching and learning, a new study says.

When KnowledgeWorks and Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF) surveyed forward-thinking practitioners across the country, nearly 89 percent said they were interested in implementing competency-based models in their classrooms, schools, districts and states. But, despite high interest, 63 percent said they have not been able to take action, citing accountability and assessment policy barriers as the main reason.

“It’s interesting to see a large percentage of educators interested in developing a competency-based system, but their innovative practices are often stifled by policy barriers,” KnowledgeWorks Vice President Policy and Advocacy Matt Williams said. “Without significant policy change, they will be forced to work in two systems simultaneously: the competency-based system they believe will prepare graduates for future success and our traditional, time-based system.”

Growing number of states and districts have embraced competency education, a new approach to teaching and learning that has the potential to solve the nation’s workforce challenges. Competency education emphasizes student mastery, rather than seat time, to ensure every student demonstrates his or her knowledge and skills in a subject before advancing.

Despite its potential, however, competency education cannot be scaled unless policymakers address the barriers that make it challenging to transform teaching and learning. Barriers stem from federal laws that reinforce traditional time-based elements in federal accountability and assessment systems.

The study addresses three policy areas that must be addressed to build an educational system that supports competency education:

1.    Shared accountability so every level of the system has a role in defining and measuring success and stakeholders have access to comprehensive and readily-available data on student, educator, and system performance to make improvements in real-time.

2.    Productive assessment, including a more balanced system that enhances the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom and provides students with the flexibility to demonstrate mastery of standards and aligned competencies in different but comparable ways

3.    Personalized and adaptive supports, that enable students to progress at their own pace but ensure that each student remains engaged and on track to graduation.

Policy reform in these areas would give states the flexibility to innovate, evaluate and build systems that positively impact student achievement.

“American schools are falling behind because students aren’t leaving school prepared to be successful in work and life,” KnowledgeWorks President and CEO Judy Peppler said. “We have the responsibility to ready every student for college, career and civic life. Competency-based learning helps us accomplish that.”

It will also help transform the K-12 system so every graduate has the knowledge and skills to excel in college and career.

“We need to transform the way we educate our students,” NMEF President and CEO Nick Donohue said. “We are excited to release this study with KnowledgeWorks to advance the conversation and move towards learning that is personalized, engaging, competency-based systems and happens anytime, anywhere.”

For more information on the study, please contact Mary Kenkel at kenkelm(at)knowledgeworks(dot)org or 513-929-1310.

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KnowledgeWorks is a social enterprise focused on ensuring that every student experiences meaningful personalized learning that allows him or her to thrive in college, career and civic life. By offering a portfolio of innovative education approaches and advancing aligned policies, KnowledgeWorks seeks to activate and develop the capacity of communities and educators to build and sustain vibrant learning ecosystems that allow each student to thrive. Our portfolio includes EDWorks and StriveTogether. http://www.knowledgeworks.org


The Nellie Mae Education Foundation supports the promotion and integration of student-centered approaches to learning at the middle and high school levels across New England -- where learning is personalized; learning is competency based; learning takes place anytime, anywhere; and students exert ownership over their own learning. To elevate student-centered approaches, the Foundation utilizes a four-part strategy that focuses on: building educator ownership, understanding and capacity; advancing quality and rigor of SCL practices, developing effective systems design; and building public understanding and demand. Since 1998, NMEF has distributed over $180 million in grants.

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Mary Kenkel
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