December 1, 2012
State by state, our country is revamping our education system to ensure that each and every one of our young people is college and career ready. Over two-thirds of our states have adopted policies that enable credits to be awarded based on proficiency in a subject, rather than the one-size-fits-all seat-time in a classroom. Now states such as Maine and New Hampshire are taking the next step in establishing competency based diplomas in which students are expected to demonstrate that they can apply their skills and knowledge. To ensure high-quality competency education, in 2011 one hundred innovators created a working definition to guide the field. This paper delves into the fourth element of the definition: Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs. Through a series of interviews and site visits, an understanding of how support in a competency-based school differs from traditional approaches emerged. Learning in a competency-based environment means pushing students and adults to the edge of their comfort zone and competence -- the learning edge. Common themes that were drawn from the wide variety of ways schools support students became the basis for the design principles introduced here. It is essential to pause and understand the importance of timely, differentiated support. Our commitment to prepare all of our young people for college and careers demands that we be intentional in designing schools to effectively meet the needs of students of all races, classes, and cultures. It also demands our vigilance in challenging inequity. There is a risk in competency education -- a risk that learning at one's own pace could become the new achievement gap and that learning anywhere/anytime could become the new opportunity gap. Therefore, our goal in writing this paper is to provide ideas and guidance so that innovators in competency education can put into place powerful systems of supports for students in order to eradicate, not replicate, the inequities and variability in quality and outcomes that exist in our current system. Please consider this paper as an initial exploration into what it means to provide support for the individual learning needs of students. It is designed to generate reflection, analysis, and feedback.