In summary

Our outdated education system too narrowly defines student success and should move toward a competency-based approach to learning.

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By Roman Stearns, Special to CalMatters

Roman Stearns is the founder and executive director of Scaling Student Success, a California partnership among educators, policymakers, researchers and others.

We have a problem in California schools. Our students are disengaged, desperate for a greater sense of belonging, and needing more voice and choice in their education. 

They crave and deserve a stronger sense of agency so they can direct their own learning in ways that align with their interests, cultural and racial identities, and dreams for the future. 

Our outdated education system too narrowly defines student achievement and success, limiting students’ engagement and also hurting their prospects for adult success. 

The good news is that several recent articles signal a movement afoot to better meet the needs of young people, families and communities.

In an Oct. 12 article in EdWeek, “Graduation must depend on learning, not time: The overdue case for competency-based education,” Jerry Almendarez, Superintendent of Santa Ana Unified School District, joined other superintendents nationwide to pose the questions: “What if we flipped the current model of public education on its head and made the standard of learning the constant and time the variable? What if the goal of education was to get all children truly ‘life ready’ no matter what the obstacle?”

Devin Vodicka, former superintendent in Vista Unified School District and current executive director of Learner-Centered Collaborative, recently published an article, “Let’s reimagine college admissions to create equitable learner-centered pathways.” He argues that “declining enrollment in colleges, clear inequities in the ways that standardized testing creates an uneven playing field, and archaic seat time and grading systems are obvious reasons to reconsider our approach at a systems level.”

In early December, Carolyn Jones and John Festerwald, of EdSource, reported on “Why some California school districts are changing how students earn grades: Mastery-based learning seen as a way to improve equity.” They explain that large school districts like San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland and Sacramento “are phasing out grades below a C for high school students. If a student fails a test or doesn’t complete their homework, they’ll be able to retake the test and get more time to turn in assignments. The idea is to encourage students to learn the course material and not be derailed by a low grade.” 

Nidya Baez, assistant principal at Fremont High in Oakland added, “Our hope is that students begin to see school as a place of learning, where they can take risks and learn from mistakes, instead of a place of compliance.”

Meanwhile, dozens of California school districts are committing to “grading for equity”  (Feldman, 2019) or “Antiracist Grading” (Safir & Dugan, Street Data, 2021) – a grading strategy based on a student’s demonstration of competency rather than elements like behavior, participation and completion of homework. Transitioning to “grading for equity” can be a gateway toward a competency-based approach to learning.

These signs of change in California are good news. 

The majority of states across the country have been moving in this direction for years, as evidenced in a map from the Aurora Institute, which directs CompetencyWorks, a knowledge-building hub and online resource dedicated to competency-based education.

Aurora Institute

This summer, Scaling Student Success, a California partnership dedicated to educating the whole child, will launch the “Reimagining CA Schools Innovation Pilot.” It will model for the state a system of education designed to be equitable, student-centered and competency-based. 

The participating school districts all have created a “graduate profile” – a succinct one-pager that captures the skills, competencies and dispositions their communities’ value as essential for students’ success. With support from a dozen practice partners, these districts are moving their graduate profiles “from poster to practice” with the goal of  assuring that each and every student develops and demonstrates the outcomes articulated in their local graduate profile.

To enable these shifts more broadly, we need state leaders – including the Department of Education and State Board, the Legislature and governor, and the  University of California and California State University systems – to support these innovations by engaging constructively in dialog, removing barriers and incentivizing advancement. 

Let’s create a shared vision and move together to more equitably and holistically prepare our young people for future success.


Roman Stearns has also written about how California should define student success in 2020.

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