In his March 30 Flypaper piece, “Rewrite attendance laws to promote learning, not seat time,” Chester Finn makes the case for reorienting school around student achievement rather than time spent in class. I wholeheartedly agree with Finn, and hope that states, districts, and schools across the country will take heed and learn from the bright spots of those already creating the state policy conditions needed to facilitate this approach.
In his piece, Finn speaks to the challenges inherent in our current education system in responding to learning loss created by the pandemic and the budgetary realities that have forced some schools to adopt four-day school weeks. What Finn refers to as mastery-learning, KnowledgeWorks, where I’m a senior director, defines as personalized, competency-based education.
This approach empowers students to play a key role in decisions about where, when, and how they will demonstrate their learning, allowing them to progress through academic content based on content mastery rather than arbitrary factors like age or time spent in class. This approach also ensures that learners have the support they need to reach proficiency.
While research suggests that this approach can positively impact things like academic achievement and student engagement, too often, state laws may make it difficult or even impossible to create systems that allow this type of flexibility. And even where state-level barriers don’t exist, educators simply do not have the resources or capacity to take the first step.
Fortunately, schools across the country have found ways to embrace these innovative approaches despite the ever present obstacles that exist. The Canopy Project, which highlights and documents innovative learning environments, has identified at least 216 transformative schools employing competency or mastery-based approaches, and in many cases, these schools are empowered by supportive state policy. State policymakers have a moral imperative to foster this type of innovation, and they have a variety of options at their disposal for doing that.
Fostering education innovation through state policy
Broaden what counts as learning. Whether a student advances from one set of content standards to the next is often defined in state statute based on the number of seat-time hours rather than what they’ve learned. States everywhere are taking steps to provide more expansive definitions of what constitutes learning. New Hampshire, for example, has completely eliminated time-based requirements for credits, instead defining instructional time as a period where “pupils are actively working towards achieving educational objectives.” Recently, Montana defined seat time to include a broad range of activities where students can demonstrate mastery, such as work-based or experiential learning.
Graduation requirements. Graduation requirements in most states are presented as a set of core credits in areas like English or math, along with other state specific requirements. Nationally, states are taking steps to broaden what counts toward graduation requirements. Kentucky, for example, requires two years of “foundational” coursework in certain subject areas but allows students significant flexibility in how to meet the remaining credits through opportunities like dual enrollment or career and technical education. Rhode Island also recently updated their graduation requirements to give districts more flexibility to design innovative learning experiences by specifically clarifying that credit awarding should not be “bound by seat time or instructional minute requirements.”
Flexibility and supports to innovate. While schools and districts have some room to innovate, more often than not, state policy confines schooling to the constraints of the current model and educators lack the needed support to try transformative things. Washington’s Mastery-Based Learning Collaborative, facilitated by the state board of education, provides a community of practice and support for educators working to implement mastery-based learning models. South Carolina offers a number of flexibilities that align to the state’s profile of a graduate. And in Utah, the state provides grants to local education agencies for planning and implementation around competency-based education.
Finn is spot on in his assessment of education today: We cannot hope to overcome the challenges we face with a business-as-usual approach. He’s also right that making such a shift will be a significant challenge. But in working with states, districts, and schools across the country, KnowledgeWorks has seen what is possible when we learn from and build upon the experience of others. To advance an education system that truly meets the needs of all learners, states should learn from those blazing the trail and make the shift, as Finn suggests, from compulsory seat time to adequately measuring learning and preparing our students for whatever comes next.