Quality Design Principle #9: Ensure Responsiveness

“We don’t blink if you are at the second grade level when you are in the fourth grade. If teachers really understand the standards and the progressions that are needed to help students move, then we can bridge the gaps. We don’t pretend anymore that students can do higher level work if they don’t have the prerequisites. It makes teaching much more complex as we are teaching students, not just going through a curriculum.”

 – Jennifer Denny, Teacher, Red Bank Elementary School, Lexington School District, SC,2016


Schools need to meet students where they are to help them master learning targets and build the competencies they need for college, career and life. When schools commit to ensuring that every student can succeed and recognize that students have different knowledge, skills and life experiences, they quickly find that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Instead, schools need to be responsive: meeting each student where they are and providing the right supports at the right time. A critical aspect of responsiveness is maintaining consistent expectations of proficiency and monitoring student pace to ensure students are receiving effective instruction and supports.

Key Characteristics

  • Meeting students where they are. Based on the learning sciences, schools promote instructional strategies and adequate supports to meet students where they are in their zone of proximal development. Within the current policy context, districts and schools likely seek ways to balance between pursuing grade level proficiency and progressing students along the personalized pathway of the learner continua.
  • Addresses foundational skills. Districts and schools ensure students are mastering the foundational skills and take responsibility for addressing key learning gaps. Students are not passed on without support. Teachers work with students to create plans to address gaps even if it will take several years.
  • Deeper learning for all. Schools have intentional strategies for ensuring all students have opportunities to develop deep, enduring and transferable knowledge regardless of where they are in terms of grade level proficiency.
  • Personalized instruction. Teachers coach students in the building blocks of learning to become independent learners, increase motivation and engagement through offering choice and co-design opportunities to pursue interests and use a variety of instructional strategies to support student learning.
  • Timely, differentiated supports. Districts and schools ensure students have access to the supports they need to keep pace toward graduation.
  • Flexible resources. Resources, including time, space, modality and technology are flexible to support responsive and personalized instruction.
  • Data-driven practice. Data on student learning and student work is used to diagnose and address learning gaps, monitor pace and inform professional learning.

How Is Ensuring Responsiveness Related to Quality?

Consider the following analogy. Asking two students with different learning backgrounds and needs to master the same rigorous content at the same time with the same supports is like asking one student to hop over a puddle, and another to leap the Grand Canyon. Meeting students where they are means ensuring that all students can actually meet the same rigorous standards by providing students who are behind with the tools, supports and time they need to make that larger leap.

Responsiveness is critical to quality because without it—the ability to meet each student where they are, provide them with the right instructional strategies, resources and supports, and monitor their progress toward proficiency—there is little reason to believe that all students will actually learn at high levels or graduate ready for college, career and life. Likewise, there is little reason to believe that districts will actually close persistent equity and opportunity gaps. Thus, responsiveness is a critical element of building a more equitable system. High-quality competency-based districts and schools build the capacity to monitor every single student’s growth and respond quickly when students are not progressing.

As previously discussed, a culture of empowerment and agency requires access to accurate and timely information. Likewise, responsiveness requires transparency about student progress and proficiency relative to grade-level standards. Transparency eliminates mixed messages and false signals to students and families about student learning, helping them to make informed decisions. Transparency also promotes teacher development and improvement. The wealth of student learning data generated in competency-based districts and schools provides powerful feedback to educators about their effectiveness and highlights areas for improving instruction. It also allows districts and schools to monitor disaggregated growth data and address inequity and bias as a part of continuous improvement.

In their purest form, competency-based systems are fully student-centered. They are designed to ensure every student is working toward successful completion of competencies with access to instructional supports that challenge and support them within their zone of proximal development and progressing along a continuum of learning at a pace that ensures they will reach proficiency. We know that some worry “meeting students where they are” is code for lowering rigor of instruction and might perpetuate learning gaps. On the contrary, meeting students where they are is about equity because meeting students where they are is highly aligned with learning sciences and standards for equitable practice. When students are met where they are in their learning, they can attach new knowledge to prior knowledge and advance their learning. When they have opportunities to be supported on personalized pathways with targeted supports to keep pace toward proficiency, they are consistently engaged in their zones of proximal development and can therefore develop true mastery.

Furthermore, meeting students where they are is inextricably linked to the practice of closely monitoring student pace and progress. Teachers work with each other and with students to create individual learning pathways that show the pace and progress students need to make, critical milestones and the supports they will need. They monitor student progress frequently to make sure students are on pace and that supports are effective. In other words, meeting students where they are does not mean being complacent about a student who starts behind. It means figuring out what that student needs to move forward and adjusting the course as needed along the way.

The key to meeting students where they are lies in three core capacities: 1) personalizing learning so that students take more responsibility for their learning and teachers are able to work with small groups or individually as needed; 2) ensuring that students can access additional support when they need it; and 3) closely monitoring growth and aligning the level and intensity of support as needed to ensure students are making progress. For a deeper discussion on this issue see the paper Meeting Students Where They Are.

There are several challenges in fully implementing a system that can respond to students and monitor student growth and progress. One of the largest challenges derives from the fact that competency-based systems continue to operate in the context of federal and state accountability policy: teachers and leaders navigate the tension between meeting students where they are and assessing students based on grade level. Instead of focusing solely on providing the most effective instruction to students regardless if they are above, at or below grade level, teachers may feel that it is only fair to cover the standards and curriculum upon which the students will be assessed at the end of the year. Some will do this by planning content around grade-level standards and building in strategic scaffolds for students who are behind. Others will prioritize “keystone” or “power” grade-level standards and go deep on them to build students’ enduring understanding.

Most districts and schools in the early stages of becoming competency-based will continue to think about the starting point of student learning as the beginning of the semester and the beginning of a course or a grade level, i.e. a grade-level learning continuum. This focuses their attention on covering standards rather than taking a more student-centered approach. While a standards-based orientation is a reasonable starting point for districts and schools earlier on the pathway to becoming fully competency-based, it is a limited strategy in the long-term. The problem is it truncates learning for those above grade level proficiency while creating risk that students are not receiving the instructional strategies they really need.

Teaching to grade-level standards and using scaffolding to build access to the grade-level content cannot be effective if it’s done without the commitment to helping all students address and fill gaps in their skills. This is hard, even impossible to do, if teachers do not know what students’ gaps are; do not have instructional flexibility to personalize for students; or do not have the ability to flex time in the day, unit, or year to ensure that all students are actually mastering standards. If, or when districts and schools find themselves ready to fully transition to learner continuum rather than grade level, they will find that student-centered information management systems (rather than those that are organized by grade-level standards within courses) are helpful in enabling educators to monitor and record student progress along their learning continua.

Policies and Practices to Look For

  • Schools are using a learner continuum that spans several grade levels rather than grade level standards.
  • Students are able to tell you what level they are working on, what they are working on, what they need for support, and how they will know when they reach proficiency.
  • Teachers plan for responding to students where they are by organizing and making available learning tasks and/or units that span the learner continuum.
  • Teachers and leaders have honest conversations about how well the school is meeting students where they are and producing growth for all sub-groups. Discussions clarify what could be done differently as part of continuous improvement.
  • Students have multiple opportunities to access extra support and instruction.
  • Data is used to monitor student growth in academic domains, success in deeper learning/higher order skills, and developing lifelong learning skills. Measures of student achievement recognizes both the growth rate based on a personal student trajectory and the age-based grade level.

Examples of Red Flags

Students are passed on at the end of the year with gaps in their learning without a plan for how to ensure they fully master knowledge and skills. Competency-based education is often described with the adage “learning is the constant and time the variable” as compared with the traditional system’s use of time as a constant. However, the amount, quality and intensiveness of support is also an important variable. Students may be building prerequisite skills or simply need more support and time when they are struggling. Some may not have completed all the learning targets, either personalized expectations or based on grade-level standards, by the end of a semester or year. Some schools create additional time at the end of semesters to support students while others have organized summer school as a natural extension of the school year. Bottom line: students should expect that they can pick up where they left off when they begin the next semester and educators should be able to have easy access to information about where students are in their learning.

Teachers or students refer to “fast learners” or “slow learners.” It is important to guard against language of students being “fast learners.” It is a red flag for two reasons. First, it is possible that students are not being offered enough opportunities for deeper learning, which generally takes more time. They may be fast only because the level of rigor being asked is closer to recall and comprehension than it is to higher-order skills of synthesis and evaluation. Second, the so-called slow student may actually be learning much more, addressing gaps in the prerequisite knowledge that is needed for the task. Thus, students might be “fast learners” only because they are operating in a much narrower zone of proximal development. Third, the term “fast learner” implies a fixed mindset—you are or you aren’t. If your culture of learning is strong, students will be comfortable talking about their grade levels and academic levels even if they are on academic levels below their grade level. Pay attention to language about progress—emphasize efficacy, depth of learning and working harder to tackle challenging material rather than falling into the trap of referring to students as fast or slow. To keep your culture of learning robust, focus on effort rather than comparison.

Scaffolding only helps students have access to a curriculum. Students often have gaps in their knowledge including the highest achieving students. Scaffolding that only provides access to a curriculum without ensuring that students actually repair the gaps means that the next year and the year after they may continue to be ill-prepared for higher level coursework. With a shared commitment to filling gaps, teachers will collaboratively develop strategies to repair those missing gaps, even if it takes longer. Sometimes plans will need to be made so that students can continue to get support in the summer and when they return the next fall. The importance is that there is continuity in their instruction and support.

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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