Exploring Student-Centered Learning in the ESSA State Plans

Many of us who research or implement student-centered learning approaches read with excitement that states now have the flexibility, under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), to include such approaches into their accountability requirements. With states required to submit their plans for implementation last month, we explored how many states chose to include student-centered learning approaches in their plans. What we found was revealing both about how far the field has progressed, and how far it has yet to go.

To develop a preliminary picture of student-centered ESSA plans, we searched for the concepts: “competency, proficiency-based, mastery-based, personalized, and student-centered.”1 Based on our findings displayed in the map below, we found student-centered language was more frequent and most concentrated in the New England states where groups such as iNACOL and Competency Works are particularly active. Additionally, five non-New England states (AR, NC, NM, OR, and TN) incorporate similarly frequent mentions of competency-based education in their state plans, followed by a healthy number of both Southern and Midwestern states. This heavy presence in multiple areas of the country demonstrates that the movement to reform state educational models away from the NCLB-style accountability measures is more than a regional effort.

But curiously, we also noted the absence of student-centered language in some states well-known for student-centered policy. For example, Washington has historically advanced competency-based legislation and established innovation zones to increase the scale of implementation. Washington and other states may have strategically chosen to not intertwine federal compliance to ESSA with pre-existing state-level innovations related to student-centered policy. The reasons for their decisions merit further exploration.


In conducting this scan, we recognize student-centered learning as a constellation of overlapping ideas with terms that often mean different things depending on who is using them.To get a better understanding of how each state incorporated competency language into their ESSA plans, the frequency breakdowns of each phrase are shown below. Across the states that do mention student-centered terms, there was a great variety in how each state uses such language. While Arkansas and Maine have close to the same frequency of key words, Maine’s state plan relies heavily on “proficiency-based” for its phrasing, while Arkansas refers to “personalized.” This distinction helps to underscore the difficulty in categorizing student-centered learning terminology within regions or across the nation.


The scope of states’ submitted ESSA plans also varies widely. Some cover whole domains of education that others skip, with some plans weighing in at over 400 pages and others under 80. To get a sense of the weight of student-centered language within each state’s vision, we adjusted the frequency of phrases to account for the length of each ESSA plan. After doing so, what stands out the most is that Connecticut and New Hampshire swap places. While Connecticut had over 70 occurrences of competency language, it also had a much longer ESSA plan. New Hampshire’s shorter plan shows a much more robust emphasis on key competency practices in the overall scheme of things. Interestingly, most other states stayed in roughly the same position, showing perhaps that while there are a few states pressing for their own vision of competency-based education, many others seem to demonstrate low-level support.


It should also be noted what is not seen here. We do not see any clean breakdown along partisan lines. Student-centered educational language was found in plans with both Republican and Democratic majorities in their state legislatures. We did find a modest association between how well a state has performed on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and how much weight they give to competency-based education. In general, states with higher NAEP scores in reading and math had a slightly higher frequency of competency language in their state plans. Again, more should be done to probe for why this might be and what it suggests about the value and impact of student-centered learning approaches.

Given this is an early—and admittedly rough—look at the student-centered learning movement, the ESSA state reports do offer a window into how states will be approaching federal compliance as we move forward. We see a few states taking the lead and building student-centered language deeply into their plans; we also see some states choosing not to draw attention to student-centered efforts that we know are happening. It remains to be seen to what extent ESSA will serve as the vehicle through which student-centered learning travels and expands, or if other states decide to shield their efforts from the federal apparatus, rendering such innovations only to local and decentralized renditions.

What are you seeing in your state or region? Let us know what you think! Want to learn more? Sign up for updates from the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative. And if you’re curious about how student-centered learning relates to ESSA, check out the resources we’ve curated here.

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[1] All state ESSA plans were scanned for the following phrases; competency, proficiency-based, mastery-based, personalized, and student-centered. We divided the number of times the terms were mentioned by the total words of the proposals. Phrases which referred to faculty or school personnel were removed so that each statement was in regards to students. Furthermore, phrases that referred to ELL, LEP, or SPED services were removed to restrict the analysis to non-specialized student populations.


Dana Mitra is a Students at the Center Distinguished Fellow as well as Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Education Policy Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. She has published over 30 papers and two books on the topics of student voice and civic engagement.

Andrew Pendola is a Ph.D. student in the Education Theory and Policy Program at Penn State University and managing editor of the American Journal of Education. He holds an M.A. in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is a former middle school social studies teacher. 

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