School & District Management Opinion

A Pathway for the Future of Education

By Lillian Pace — September 23, 2013 4 min read
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When Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, completes his purchase of The Washington Post in October for $250 million in cash, it will represent something larger than a business transaction. It will defy convention. Amazon did not exist 20 years ago, but its success allowed Bezos to buy the venerable Post, a product of 19th-century innovation struggling to cater to the changing needs and desires of a 21st-century public.

There is a parallel in education. Over the next decade, our education system will experience the kind of deep disruption and reconfiguration that Amazon, iTunes, and Zipcar brought to their respective industries. The concept of “school” will take many forms where learning is no longer defined by time and place. Radical personalization will become the norm as learners and families create individualized learning “playlists” and educators embrace new roles defined by growing relationships with the community and changing credentials.

This future can appear daunting, but the path to success is apparent, thanks to hundreds of districts in 39 states that have begun the transformation to “competency education,” also known as “proficiency-based learning.” This new approach to education is centered on student mastery of knowledge and skills, instead of the amount of time a student spends in a particular class.


Having matriculated through a more traditional education system, I am energized by these changes. Competency education makes learning the constant and time the variable, so that all students are challenged and all students succeed. The one-size-fits-all system evaporates as educators work with students to identify customized pathways to graduation focused on academic content and skills. In this system, honor students accelerate and go deep, special education students excel in honors programs, and at-risk students receive extra time and supports to stand beside their peers at graduation.

I have had the opportunity to see these classrooms across the nation. In Casco Bay High School for Expeditionary Learning in Portland, Maine, I saw students engage in long-term projects and performance tasks to demonstrate mastery of academic standards and skills. Casco Bay High serves about 280 students and was named one of Maine’s top high schools in 2012 by U.S. News & World Report. One hundred percent of its first two graduating classes were accepted to college.

“Proficiency-based learning has helped us raise expectations for all learners,” Principal Derek Pierce shared with me in an email. “C and D work is no longer acceptable—only quality work meets the standard. There is a deep culture of revision fueled by teacher feedback, peer feedback, and self-assessment as students strive to meet transparent, vital standards.”

Casco Bay High focuses on learning rather than grades or compliance. Every teacher posts learning targets daily that are connected to course standards. These targets guide all instruction, discussion, and reflection in the school. The proficiency-based approach also gives teachers greater instructional flexibility, allowing them to create long-term, multidisciplinary projects that address a diverse cross section of standards.

There are equally impressive results at schools like Boston Day and Evening Academy in Massachusetts, which uses a competency-based model to prepare over-age and under-credited youths for academic and career success. BDEA is open 10 hours a day to meet the needs of its diverse student population, and the school is bustling all 10 hours. Of the 71 members of the class of 2013, 76 percent attend college, 13 percent attend training programs, 4 percent are in the military, and 6 percent gained full-time employment.

As encouraging as these pockets of innovation are, plenty of work lies ahead to scale competency education.

Over the next decade, our education system will experience the kind of deep disruption and reconfiguration that Amazon, iTunes, and Zipcar brought to their respective industries.”

While a majority of states have taken bold steps to waive seat-time laws, federal and state policy barriers still exist. Our accountability systems remain time-based and place too great an emphasis on annual rankings instead of continuous improvement. Current assessments and high school graduation requirements do not measure the full range of competencies that students need to excel in college, careers, and beyond. Generally, our teacher-certification policies provide little flexibility for collaborative teaching environments where educators adapt regularly to meet the needs of students. Policymakers must eliminate these barriers so educators have room to innovate.

In addition to policy changes, we must prepare our education workforce to excel in competency-based environments. Preservice and in-service educator-preparation programs must work together to build capacity for this shift and provide ongoing support. Colleges of education and alternative-certification programs can play a significant role in this transformation. They can overhaul their systems to ensure graduates have the knowledge and experience to create and implement highly personalized pathways for every student.

Finally, a competency education system will require the development of new student assessments, data systems, learning-management systems, and instructional tools. The marketplace has begun to respond, but shortages of supply and demand make it difficult to take these models to scale.

Despite an explosion of new startup ventures and investors focused on competency education, the supply of high-quality tools remains limited. Demand is also a challenge as shrinking education budgets make it difficult for educators to purchase the tools and training to bring their vision to life. Governments, businesses, and communities must identify creative funding strategies to support this transformation at scale.

While the list of challenges seems long, it should not deter us from the path of success. The business community has capitalized on the shift to radical personalization and now reaps the rewards. We must do the same in education.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 2013 edition of Education Week as A Pathway for the Future of Education


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