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Education policy should be top of mind as state policymakers continue their legislative work this spring. After unprecedented learning loss, growing disparities in educational outcomes and overall public dissatisfaction, the time is right for an education overhaul.

Now is the time to capitalize on a growing momentum for personalized, competency-based learning, as 72 percent of Americans say K-12 education should be a top priority for state lawmakers in 2023. Almost half say that they want to see bold changes taking place.

Such change will require states to create the policy flexibility needed for local innovation to flourish. Yet inflexibility is a hallmark of our current education system, apparent in our failure to meet the diverse learning needs of all our children.

Education leaders must be brave and stand up and admit publicly and repeatedly that this system just isn’t working and discuss what is needed to improve it. Policymakers must revamp our education system’s faulty design and the failed policies that prevent us from trying new approaches.

Across all socioeconomic and racial groups, Americans want an education system that goes beyond college preparation and delivers practical skills for every learner, based on their own needs, goals and vision for the future.

We believe that this can be achieved by making the future of learning more personalized, focused on the needs of individual learners, with success measured by progress and proficiency instead of point-in-time test scores.

Change is hard, but we expect our students to take risks and fail every day. We should ask no less of ourselves.

The work has already begun. A decade ago, barely half of all states had policies in place that allowed for personalized, competency-based learning. Now, almost every state does. This approach has learners and educators working together to ensure that students master what they need to learn, with opportunities to show what they know and can do in a variety of ways.

Personalized learning helps each student receive support to reach their learning goals. It’s tailored so that they can chart their own path to getting where they need to be, using the time and space they need to get there.

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This approach to teaching and learning also fosters more equitable outcomes. In Philadelphia, personalized learning interventions helped stop the widespread practice of labeling, sorting and separating students by perceived academic ability and behavioral compliance. District leaders worked with parents, community leaders, administrators and educators to create a system that recognizes, and accounts for, how children start their learning journeys in many different ways.

For example, we introduced nonverbal cognitive assessments to measure intellectual aptitude among all second graders. This resulted in the identification of many more Black, Latino and non-English speaking learners being offered accelerated learning opportunities. Previously, most children identified as “gifted” were from affluent areas and predominately white. 

Americans want an education system that goes beyond college preparation and delivers practical skills for every learner, based on their own needs, goals and vision for the future.

Across the country, similar teaching and learning innovations are underway. The Canopy Project has documented hundreds of examples of what is possible when stakeholders work together to reimagine the future of education.

Thirteen states have outlined the knowledge, skills and dispositions that all students in the state must demonstrate by the time they graduate.

Organizations representing state boards of education, state education chiefs and state legislators are now recognizing the power of this movement, amplifying and elevating this new approach to education.

The state of North Dakota has been pushing innovation since 2013 when it introduced a structured statewide system for continuous improvement and accountability. The measurement system included a growth metric to ensure educators had an accurate view of learner progress. The work truly began to reap dividends in 2017, when the governor, state lawmakers and education stakeholders enacted legislation giving the superintendent authority to waive state assessment and graduation requirements, so-called seat time policies and other elements of state-required instruction.

This provided the flexibility districts needed to shape innovative educational approaches.The department has since established the North Dakota Personalized, Competency-Based Learning Initiative, supporting districts as they scale personalized learning models.

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KnowledgeWorks, in a partnership with the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction and educators across the state, developed the North Dakota Learning Continuum, which defines a set of learning expectations for students participating in a competency-based learning model and details what they should know and be able to demonstrate, both during their K-12 career and beyond.

While state policy in North Dakota made way for system innovations, transformation gained traction when local educators, families and students came together to make fundamental changes in their vision for a common education future.

Instead of focusing on ACT scores, grading scales and report cards, the new approach gives North Dakota schools the ability to reevaluate goals and benchmarks and offers students the opportunity to pursue the outcomes they desire.

To make transformational change, the best intentions of every educator, principal and administrator are not enough. Every stakeholder, including parents, teachers, advocates and community members, must be an active part of the solution. All school systems and educators need support in the common effort to find solutions to America’s student learning deficit.

Many new school board members, state legislators and policy makers have taken office this spring. Sharing examples of success and what personalized learning could look like in their communities can be a powerful policy motivator.

Everyone has a role to play in changing the course of a century-old system, and for fulfilling the promise and potential that personalized, competency-based learning holds for our nation’s students.

Bill Hite is the former superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia (SDP), the largest public school system in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He currently serves as the CEO of KnowledgeWorks.

Kirsten Baesler is the state school superintendent and administrator of the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, overseeing the education of almost 122,000 students across the state.

This story about personalized learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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