The idea that the public school system needs to transform from its factory-based model to a 21st-century student-centric design is repeated so often it’s become axiomatic. On Digital Learning Day in February, President Obama himself said that “the effective use of digital-learning tools . . . [helps ensure] no student is overlooked and every child receives the world-class education needed to excel in the 21st century.”

But transitioning from a factory to a student-centric model is no small task. It takes monumental re-architecting not only of decades of regulation, but also of the basic data, assessment, and reporting systems that provide the operational backbone to the task of delivering free public education to 50 million students.

Two suggestions offer a starting point for the task of reconfiguring that data backbone. The first is that a student-centric data system requires a shift away from tracking compliance with ESEA and state-accountability frameworks based on seat-time to a new focus on tracking each student’s progress toward mastering competencies. Susan Patrick and Chris Sturgis make the point in this excellent report that competency-based learning is one of the keys to cracking open the assumptions that undergird the current education structure. Students need to be able to advance based on their personal readiness, not based on the number of minutes they spend in their seats at school.

The authors note that current data systems are not geared for managing a competency-based system. “The problem,” they say, “is that district data systems have been designed in the same silos as compliance policies for reporting:  ten elements for student demographic data, attendance based on seat-time, and end-of-year NCLB assessments that don’t inform instruction.” In contrast, students of the future will not care about seat-time compliance (we can hope) and instead will focus on actually learning things. To do that, they will need systems that create individual learning plans, including mapping which competencies they have mastered and which are up next. Khan Academy’s Knowledge Map is one way of visualizing that kind of competency tracking.

Western Governors University (WGU) provides a great template. WGU has developed a strong name for itself in the postsecondary education world because of its leadership in building an online system to grant degrees based solely on students demonstrating competency in their courses of study. This laser focus on outcomes has required WGU to piece together a unique data architecture. Innosight Institute recently published a case study detailing WGU’s competency-based information system here.

The second suggestion is that states should take the lead in building an integrated data system for all the users in their system. Districts are the wrong locus of responsibility. For one thing, state compliance procedures largely dictate the shape of the system. If the state focuses on seat-time attendance and year-end assessments, then those elements will drive system needs. Alternatively, if states want performance-based learning and student growth, then they require a very different assessment and reporting process. States should create the data system to support whatever model they impose.

Furthermore, states are the right size to provide the integration necessary for a seamless student experience. Regardless of where they live in the state, students need a consistent understanding of required competencies toward earning a state diploma, a unified on-demand set of assessments to measure those competencies, and a simple platform to monitor their individual programs. The state is in the best position to provide that integrated experience.

As state policymakers debate the future shape of digital learning in their states, they would be wise to create ample provision for reconfiguring the data system that will be the operational backbone of their vision.


  • Heather Staker
    Heather Staker

    Heather Staker is an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute, specializing in K–12 student-centered teaching and blended learning. She is the co-author of "Blended" and "The Blended Workbook." She is the founder and president of Ready to Blend, and has authored six BloomBoard micro-credentials for the “Foundations of Blended Learning” educator micro-endorsement.