Quality Design Principle #14: Increase Organizational Flexibility

“From day one, I have always shared with our staff that we can approach and reach our mission and vision a thousand different ways, but we can not have a thousand different mission and visions…we will always have one. We are all committed to our mission and vision, and it’s just the way that we do business. However, we can have a thousand ways to get there. We are always innovating, and with that comes new approaches to supporting learning and building opportunities for our students.”

– James Murray, Principal, Waukesha STEM Academy, Waukesha School District, WI, 2017


Schools require autonomy to be responsive and flexible to meet student needs. Once we know where students are in their learning, it is incumbent upon a competency-based system to respond in ways that will engage, motivate and provide the needed instructional support. This adaptability requires a flexible structure. The organization of districts and schools enables educators to respond to students with personalized and differentiated strategies. Resources are flexible—learning spaces, materials, modalities, support, time and technology are used strategically to ensure each student has what they need to succeed. Instructional strategies are also flexible and may call for direct instruction, small groups or project-based learning. Teachers have autonomy to organize tools and resources, including hands-on and online instructional strategies. School leaders value organizational agility and use distributed leadership so that decisions can be made by people closest to students. Districts provide schools with autonomy to manage budgets and resources so that they can be responsive to students and have the freedom for improvement and innovation.

Key Characteristics

  • Strategic resources and practices. Learning resources, including time, space, materials, people and money, can be used flexibly to best support students’ unique motivations and learning needs.
  • Decision-making clarity. There are clear frameworks for decision-making to ensure that flexibility has guardrails and to support collaborative responses to students and emerging implementation issues.
  • Autonomy. To be responsive, empowerment and autonomy is needed. Schools have autonomy to manage resources and teachers have ample autonomy to select instructional practices to meet student needs.
  • Timely differentiated supports. Schools are organized to provide flexibility so that students can have access and teachers can provide supports in a timely manner.
  • Equity. While resources are flexible and used to support every student, they are also levers for equity. Among the many considerations that drive how resources are utilized, teachers and leaders prioritize ensuring that students who have been marginalized or who need more supports can access them. Decisions are made as much as possible around ensuring a growth rate of one or more performance levels per year.
  • Responsive systems. Districts and schools have highfunctioning systems that can manage and accommodate flexible practice. They strike the right balance of managing autonomous practice within established parameters, and promoting flexibility through proactive, customized approaches to support. Some refer to this as a “customer service” orientation; districts and schools do not set out to enforce classroom practice, but rather to ensure that teachers and students have what they need to succeed while operating with the bounds of shared agreements.
  • What’s best for kids. There is ongoing questioning of the habits, routines and practices of the traditional system to understand the underlying beliefs, rationale and implications for students and learning. Decisions are made as much as possible based on what’s best for students. Leaders then navigate these decisions within their current policy context, modeling creative leadership rather than a compliance mentality.
  • Improvement. Systems need to understand the relationship between resources, practices and outcomes. Districts and schools have systems to examine how resources are used and to observe correlations between their usage and student success. These data are used to improve resource allocation in the future.

How Is Increasing Organizational Flexibility Related to Quality?

In competency-based systems, schools and teachers are able to respond to student needs: to engage, motivate and provide them with the resources and support they need to succeed. This adaptability requires flexibility—schools and teachers cannot respond to students if they have no wiggle room in a bureaucratic, top down system. Earlier we describe this as an element of culture and clarify how leaders create systems and structures that encourage teachers and students to take leadership over their learning and professional practice. Here, we look at a similar principle from a structural lens. For individuals to take leadership, they must operate in a system that has the adaptive capability to support flexible practice.

Shared Purpose, Decision-Making Clarity & Autonomy

Creating an agile organization begins with a shared purpose. Many districts reduce this to the powerful mantra “What’s Best for Kids?” that renews the commitment to why districts and schools turned to competency-based education in the first place. An agile organization has shared criteria for decision-making that enables distributed leadership strategies. The strategic plan or guiding principles are often placed on the wall in a conference room where team meetings are held, not hidden in a notebook on a shelf, to be considered in making decisions. Autonomy is negotiated so that boundaries are clear. Schools need autonomy to deploy resources and teachers need autonomy to use their professional judgment to provide what is best for students.

Learner Continuum

Once the learning framework is developed, some districts that are fiercely dedicated to meeting students where they are turn to a learner continuum rather than relying only on grade-level learning objectives as defined by state standards. The difference between the two is that the learner continuum is student-centered and shows the span of performance levels and standards the students are working on. Thus, one learner’s continuum may span three performance levels as they perform at level 8 in math, 7 in reading and writing and 6 in science. However, many districts are finding it difficult to shift away from frameworks that are organized solely around grade-level standards. This is due to three dynamics: federal and state accountability policies that drive statewide assessment based on the age/grade of students, information management systems for tracking student learning that are organized around course and grade and teacher preparation that has trained teachers for delivery of grade-level curriculum rather than instructional strategies that meet students where they are.

Planning for Not Yet

The phrase “factory model” is often used to describe the traditional education system because of its rigidity. Students enter a time-based system that passes them along regardless of whether they learned what was expected of them. The system rarely slows down or adjusts to students’ needs. Students graduate with tragically inadequate skills, or do not graduate at all. It is paradoxical that federal accountability policies that exposed gaping achievement gaps in the traditional education system have also reinforced some of the practices that produce those very same gaps by requiring grade level assessments that inform accountability but do not contribute to student learning. (See Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education for alternative approaches to accountability.)

In contrast, competency-based districts and schools are organized around the assumption that at some point every student is going to encounter challenges in their learning, and that those challenges will require additional instruction, support and time. In other words, they plan for students to be “not yet proficient.” It is a common misconception that competency-based education is self-paced. It would be better thought of as “responsively paced,” as schools persevere to figure out what is needed to help students succeed. Structurally, this includes budgeting for additional instructional support; scheduling for extra support during the day, after school, on the weekends, or even for a few days after the semester and through the summer. Additionally, this includes investing in capacity to build and manage relationships with community partners to develop real-world experiences and problems to solve, and deploying staff flexibly so that students below or above grade level are well served.

Investing in Professional Judgment

Professional judgment is highly valued in competency-based systems. A culture of distributed leadership develops processes to ensure that teachers—the people who are closest to students—can make optimal decisions in support of student learning. The shared pedagogical philosophy developed by districts and schools provide common guardrails or boundaries within which teachers build their capacity for a variety of instructional strategies. Most important, teachers are fully supported in building their knowledge and skills to better support students in their learning journey.

Challenging the Habits and Practices of the Traditional Model

Once educators begin to deconstruct the traditional education model, a door swings open to question many of the policies and practices that shape what we have known as school. In addition to replacing completion of a semester or a course as a proxy of achievement with demonstration of learning, districts and schools begin to question grading, what makes effective curriculum, grading and staffing patterns. Many districts are turning to new structures designed to build stronger relationships:

  • Introducing multi-age bands has helped teachers learn to focus on meeting students where they are rather than covering the curriculum.
  • Ninth-grade academies allow a small group of teachers to take responsibility for ensuring students are fully prepared for the transition to high school with attention to repairing gaps and strengthening the building blocks of learning so students are ready to take more ownership of their learning.
  • Micro-schools or programs of 75-150 students create ease in adjusting to students based on their progress.

Districts and schools are also adjusting the calendar and schedules to offer “courses” that run for different periods of time, opportunities for students to put all their attention to robust projects and creating time for students to pursue inquiry-based research or capstones.

Policies and Practices to Look For

  • Policies, operations and resource deployment strategies ensure that every student has access to timely, differentiated instruction and supports.
  • Time is flexible to ensure students can master content without having to repeat courses or grades. Competency-based schools provide flex time during the day for students to receive additional instructional support.
  • Schools have a high level of control over their budgets and hiring to increase agility to respond to student needs, interests, changing demographics and opportunities.
  • Scheduling is designed to offer frequent support for students who are struggling and opportunities for teachers to work within professional learning communities.
  • Districts and schools support teachers in creating high-quality learning experiences and building the professional judgment of teachers.
  • Summer school is arranged for students to focus on specific learning objectives based on students’ learner continua, not repeat courses.
  • Schools and teachers seek out information about the learner continua of entering students or students that will be in their classes so that they can prepare to continue to support students are in their learning journey.

Examples of Red Flags

The school schedule only provides a flex time for individual support once a week or not at all. Students are going to begin to disconnect from their learning if they have to wait several days or weeks before getting the help they need. And in some classes it might mean that students have to endure not understanding new content because they didn’t get the chance to fully learn the prerequisite skills. Competency-based districts and schools often create “flex time” during the school day. Some schools use lunch or after school for extra support but these are not sustainable strategies and may create inequity for those students that have after school responsibilities. It may take moral courage and creativity to create a schedule that values providing timely support if there are state policies that are rooted in archaic time based policies such as not considering support provided to students as instruction.

Students repeat courses and go to summer school for “retake.” Having students sit through an entire course rather than receive targeted instruction based on their individual needs is an inefficient use of resources and can lead to boredom if students already know some of the material. Furthermore, students that may be performing at a lower grade level or have gaps should be able to participate in summer school not because they failed a course but because they need time and support to accelerate their learning so that they can get on track to graduation.

Source: Sturgis, C. & Casey K. (2018). Quality principles for competency-based education. Vienna, VA: iNACOL. Content in this book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 international license.

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