Our education system is built to measure and reward the wrong end of the student.

Rather than measure learning and move individual students along to new concepts as they master previous ones, it measures seat time and moves students along when they hit certain dates on a calendar. Time is fixed and the learning is variable, when what we need is a system that makes time variable so that the learning can be fixed.

In their recently released report titled “Clearing the Path: Creating Innovation Space for Serving Over-Age, Under-Credited Students in Competency-Based Pathways,” Chris Sturgis, Bob Rath, Ephraim Weisstein, and Susan Patrick continue the important work Sturgis and Patrick started with their recent report, “When Success is the Only Option: Designing Competency-Based Pathways for Next Generation Learning” to begin to guide states toward escaping today’s backward education system.

That we need to do this is of course not a new observation. Many have written about this over the years. As I myself have written elsewhere with others, “Schools teach using a monolithic batch system. When a class is ready to move on to a new concept, all students move on, regardless of how many have mastered the previous concept (even if it is a prerequisite for learning what is next). … Both the bored and the bewildered see their motivation for achievement shredded by the system.”

If we want to educate every child to her maximum potential, which is something no country does today, including those, like China, Singapore, and Finland, that have garnered so much attention recently with their high scores on the PISA exam, we won’t get there with a system like this.

But to this point, fixing it has been elusive, hence the importance of Sturgis’s and Patrick’s work that sets out definitions and begins to define the steps necessary to get there. As the authors observe, it’s not enough just to create waivers to escape seat-time requirements and assume that the system will take off. States need to create and support a system that is coherent—from the definition of the standards to the assessments in place to measure competency on an as-needed basis and from the ability to reorganize staffing to the integrated student information and learning management systems built around this approach.

In this latest work, the authors discuss the need for protected space to pilot these initiatives, and how targeting this effort at over-age, under-credited students is an ideal place to do so—especially because these students need a fresh approach that emphasizes their success, not their failure.

I would add that because today’s system is built in an intricately interdependent way to produce the exact results that it does, what we can also conclude is that the current system is not designed for this new value proposition of competency-based learning. Just as attempts to measure and pay for outcomes, not inputs, in hospitals dealing with complex conditions and in consulting firms like Bain have failed, so too will implementing approaches like this as a point solution in today’s system.

This is why carving out zones to implement this and rethink everything, as the authors suggest, is critical. It’s also why the disruptive innovation of online learning that is gaining traction is so exciting—because it gives us a chance to rethink this system in a coherent way around the right thing, student learning. But time is wasting as we continue to force online learning into today’s antiquated seat-time rules.

Lastly, something the authors have not yet given enough time to is how the funding must change to support this work. Rather than funding seat time, we need to move the funding based on the successful attainment of competencies to align this new system. And the authors here make an important contribution, which is (my words) that doing this would be dangerous if we only defined competencies narrowly as “academic” competencies around literacy and math and so forth. Instead, we also need to include what they call “efficacy” competencies, around so-called 21st-century skills like critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration.

For a child to be successful when she grows up, these will of course be important, too, and she just might not develop them from sitting at a desk in a row in a math classroom staring at an electronic white board with a teacher up front on a certain day and time.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.