Last week I posted, as an Education Insider for the National Journal, the following in reaction to Fawn Johnson’s post on ESEA, ESEA Overhaul Could Actually Happen This Year,” on the National Journal‘s Education Experts blog. Fawn provided an insightful overview of the current status of ESEA with an emphasis on Sen. Alexander’s (R-TN), Chair of the Senate HELP Committee, ESEA discussion draft. The Education Insiders were asked to deal with the follocompetency education federal policywing questions:

For our insiders: How big are the differences between the administration and congressional Republicans on ESEA? Can they be bridged? Is it a good idea to leave testing up to the states with fewer consequences for not meeting their own expectations? Everyone seems to agree that testing is redundant and overused now, but how much testing is enough? Is it possible to redirect more school funding to lower-income schools? How will school choice play in to this debate? Is it possible to get a wholesale rewrite this year?

ESEA is moving? What the what? First, I’ll quickly address some of Fawn’s questions before I go another direction. How big are the differences between the administration and congressional Republicans on ESEA? Substantial. There are policy questions as well as the legacy question around ESEA Waivers. The administration has used the waivers to extend its fingerprints on national policy. A reauthorization would roll back the waivers gutting the Administration’s legacy especially with proposed, probable cuts to RTTT, i3, and Promise Neighborhoods. Can they be bridged? Probably not. Is it possible to get a wholesale rewrite this year? It’s possible… I’m rarely the optimist on ESEA reauthorization normally betting on sometime in my lifetime type horizons. It is possible that we see a reauthorization. It is still a 50/50 proposition and I think we will see a bill passed in the House before the Senate even though the Senate has a running start. It isn’t called the “peculiar institution” for nothing.

So to change directions, one area that I am excited about is that competency education is getting active play in the Alexander draft. As a growing number of states and districts adopt competency-based models and practices, federal policy must evolve to support education systems that focus on students’ mastery of academic content and skills instead of seat time. I commend Senator Alexander for recognizing this growing interest in a competency-based education system in his discussion draft. Alexander’s discussion draft proposes to give states the option of implementing competency-based assessment systems, as well as permission to use federal assessment funds to build these systems. It also upholds the federal commitment to annual, transparent data. While the discussion draft raises many key issues, it creates opportunity to consider input from a wide range of stakeholders.

Building on the foundation in the Alexander discussion, federal policymakers can support the growth of competency education in K-12 education by adopting the following recommendations in the next ESEA reauthorization:

  • Recommendation 1: Pilot Competency-Based Accountability and Systems of Assessments in up to Five States
  • Recommendation 2: Support Systems of Assessments That Align to Competency-Based Approaches
  • Recommendation 3: Include System of Supports and Interventions in State Title I Plans
  • Recommendation 4: Support Learning Infrastructure to Enable Competency Education
  • Recommendation 5: Support Educators and Leaders to Build Capacity for Competency Education

More detail on these recommendations, created and offered in partnership between KnowledgeWorks and iNACOL, can be found at the following link:



In a recent research project, I started to take a few steps into the complex world of education data systems. Previously, my exposure to data systems was as a teacher, when I knew better than to forget to enter attendance at the beginning of the day. The extent of my understanding was that my students’ attendance would find its way to the district and the state, and one magic day per year, that data would determine how much money my school received.

In short, more kids = more money.

I also knew, however, that the value of my attendance data went far beyond the number of copies my school could afford to make in a given year; the chronic absences of some of my kindergartners was beginning a treacherous path of academic struggle. Despite organizations, research, and local campaigns that recognize that attendance data provides valuable insight to student achievement, states and districts often maintain a funding-driven view of attendance, which leaves schools—often individual teachers—to grapple with the deeper ramifications of absenteeism.Boy-at-Desk

One of today’s most hotly contested data points is the annual standardized test score. The vast majority of states compile student assessment data once per year in order to determine the school or district accountability rating. While this data is valuable to bring light to inequalities that exist in the education system, its use is stunted when it doesn’t translate to action that improves schools and student outcomes.

Any teacher knows that the process of supporting students involves constantly checking in and providing feedback. Assessments determine next steps, not the final value of a student’s knowledge. Teachers continually collect data to support student growth, and states should do the same for districts and schools.

In my research to learn more about state data systems, I wanted to know which states have systems that link with district systems to ultimately provide real-time support. As a usually-shameless idealist, I have been sorely disappointed by the word that appears on too many department of education websites to tell the story of their data systems: compliance.

To be fair, I love rules and prefer to follow them to a fault. However, compliance without embracing the true intention—or at the very least understanding the true intention— is a waste of time.

State departments of education can be vehicles of equity and increased opportunities for all children, or they can continue the age-old tradition of honoring high achievers and shaming the strugglers. Some type of middle ground may exist, but when data is pulled once yearly from a few hours of tests, that middle ground is feeble.

This is why I am excited about states like Virginia and New Hampshire (among a few others) that understand that it is not really possible to actualize school improvement when data is collected, analyzed, and acted upon once per year.

States that are serious about supporting schools could take a page out of Virginia’s book, where an early warning system collects student data throughout the year to target interventions to students at risk of dropping out and to identify school climate elements that may contribute to dropout rates.

New Hampshire
As the leader in implementing competency education, New Hampshire recognized the need for a state data system that was better equipped to communicate with district systems and provide necessary supports. The Initiative for School Empowerment and Excellence reduces the burden on schools and gives information back to schools based on regularly collected data to encourage student achievement through rigorous data use and analysis.

By encouraging states to develop data systems with complete information, the Data Quality Campaign has been essential to the first step of creating meaningful data systems across the country. With data collection getting better and better, the next step must address the use of this data. Collection and compliance alone have not and will not support students in reaching their full potential.



Personalized Learning for Everyone

by Kate Westrich January 15, 2015

Katherine Prince, Senior Director of Strategic Foresight at KnowledgeWorks, writes about her work on Personalize Learning, a blog founded on the idea that personalizing learning is the key design element to transform education. For more than two decades, the team at Personalize Learning has worked towards empowering every learner to support and direct their own […]

Read the full post →

Competency Education Gains a Seat at the Congressional Negotiating Table

by Lillian Pace January 15, 2015
Thumbnail image for Competency Education Gains a Seat at the Congressional Negotiating Table

To all of the competency education visionaries working in state governments, districts, and classrooms around the country – this week marked an important victory for you. After years of running up against federal time-based policy barriers, the Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Lamar Alexander (R–TN), released a discussion draft for […]

Read the full post →

ICYMI: 2014 Blogging Favorites

by Mary Kenkel December 22, 2014

This year has been a busy one for KnowledgeWorks. So, in case you missed it (ICYMI), here are some of our favorite World of Learning blogs from this year: “It’s Time for Transformation” by Katherine Prince | When the Donnell-Kay Foundation announced ReSchool Colorado as a game-changing, multi-year effort to create a new state public […]

Read the full post →

Launching the District Conditions of Scale

by Jesse Moyer December 18, 2014

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind since we launched the District Conditions for Scale. With presentations in California, Connecticut, Ohio and Texas, we’ve already seen the interest in these conditions which outline what’s needed to implement personalized learning in districts throughout the country. The idea of identifying what districts can do in order to […]

Read the full post →