Reformer ToolboxLogin

CancelLost your password?

Rethinking School

• Karla Phillips

It’s back to school time. It’s a new year, with new classes, new teachers, new friends, and maybe even a new school. We all remember the feeling.

This year most of our educators continue to plan and prepare to fully implement new college and career ready standards. In many ways these new standards are exactly what they have wanted – fewer, deeper and allowing for many of the types of instructional shifts that give teachers room for great instruction.

But we know that getting all students to this higher bar will be a heavy lift. Have you ever wondered what school would be like if we were to design a system where:

  • Students progress as they demonstrate proficiency.
  • Standards are broken down into competencies that include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Meaningful formative assessments are used and they actually produce a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize skills and competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

Not only would this be a better way to ensure that students truly learn, but this approach ensures that teachers receive detailed in-time information about their students. Technology can improve the ability to truly differentiate but it’s not a requirement. The only requirement is allowing yourself to rethink school.

Would you be surprised if I told you that the idea of proficiency or competency-based education was already happening all across the country?

The importance of being student-centered and ensuring high expectations is not a new topic, but can we truly do that if we operate in a box constrained by a fixed number of days, hours, and minutes of instruction?

Competency-based education provides a different lens through which to see all of the major issues facing our education leaders and a progressive new framework for the work going forward. Whether it’s the implementation of new standards and assessments or the challenges facing school improvement, it’s time for a new paradigm.

Colorado has not only started down this path but has thoughtfully and strategically approached the uncharted territory.

Given statutory requirements to determine high school graduation guidelines, a Graduation Guidelines Council was formed to provide recommendations to the State Board; these were ultimately adopted in May 2013.

The Council embedded the transition to competency-based education in their final recommendations, thus paving the way for discussions related to the transition to new standards and assessments.

Every state has endeavored to address graduation requirements in some way, shape or manner, and many are preparing to review the topic now as they transition to new college and career ready assessments. However, Colorado has clearly seen this as an opportunity to rethink school.

The Guiding Beliefs of the final recommendations explicitly state that:

The Colorado high school diploma should signal proof of competency of the K‐12 academic standards, rather than merely completion of seat‐time requirements.


In preparing students for successful graduation, learning is the constant. Time is the variable. Students should be allowed to engage in and take the time needed to master rigorous content. Some students may need more time; others less.

The guidelines adopted by the State Board provide a table of Competency Demonstration options with a provision for additional approved demonstrations as they “become more standardized.” Colorado’s competencies also envision inclusion of 21st Century Skills as well as the completion of an Individual Career and Academic Plan (ICAP). While this could be seen as a clear indication of the work yet to be done, it is incredibly encouraging that the guidelines clearly state that “the determinations begin the transition to a competency‐based system.” In fact, local districts are explicitly given flexibility to determine the amount of time students may need to earn their diploma.

I believe all educators know that personalized instruction is optimal and technology is inevitable (so do parents). What they may not know is what it can look like, and it is doubtful that many of them have the time to contemplate such big ideas.

There is a temptation to think of this as just another reform but let’s view this as an opportunity. Congratulations Colorado, looks like you’re off to a great start!

About the author

Karla Phillips

Karla is Policy Director for Next Generation Learning at ExcelinEd. Previously, she served as Special Assistant to the Deputy Superintendent of Policy and Programs at the Arizona Department of Education. Karla also served as the Education Policy Advisor for Governor Brewer and as the Vice-Chair of Arizona’s Developmental Disabilities Planning Council. Her experience includes serving as Director of State Government Relations for Arizona State University (ASU) and as a senior policy advisor for Arizona’s House of Representatives. Karla received her B.A. from Indiana University and an M.P.A from Arizona State University.