Educator Competencies Overview

As college- and career-ready standards become a reality across the nation, educators and system leaders are increasingly exploring new models of teaching and learning that are more responsive to the needs of all students in our elementary and secondary schools.

Known as learner-centered, student-centered, or personalized learning these approaches require a rethinking of the teaching and learning practices that have predominated public school instruction.

See Appendix A for a glossary of highlighted words.

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Gone is the default image of a teacher—an adult lecturing to students seated neatly in rows, assigning the same textbook pages to everyone, and administering the same quiz on the same day to the entire class, with the expectation of a “normal distribution” of achievement along a bell curve. Instead, teachers in personalized, learner-centered settings are called upon to assess and address individual student needs and help all reach rigorous proficiency standards. These educators promote collaborative work among groups of students; integrate learning experiences that occur outside the classroom; and, above all, foster learner independence and student voice and choice, or student agency. Achieving this ambitious vision is only possible with significant changes in the very role of the educator and the ways in which educators interact with students, peers, and the broader community.

Learner-centered approaches have captured the imagination and loyalty of educators since the time of Dewey and the Progressive Movement, yet they have never been implemented at scale. What marks this era as any different? The renewed interest in personalized, learner-centered education today builds from a powerful combination of economic, scientific, egalitarian, and technological forces: We have a better understanding of what truly constitutes college and career readiness for an ever-changing, global marketplace. Cognitive neuroscience and learning theory research reveal close connections among motivation, agency, and learning. For the first time in our history, the nation is committed to preparing all students for success in postsecondary education and careers. And the rapid expansion of technological advances and availability makes a level of personalization possible at scale as never before.

The language used to name the educational approaches that are the focus of these Competencies has evolved rapidly over the past few years. Due to recent shifts in meaning, our organizations increasingly use the terms student-centered, learner-centered, and personalized as largely interchangeable in our literature. For the purposes of these Competencies, we have decided to use one consistent phrase—“personalized, learner-centered,” which we believe best captures the spirit of approaches that build on the learner’s needs and interests, regardless of age. By contrast, student-centered can be used in some contexts to indicate only learners in a K-12 system, rather than learners at any educational stage or setting. Similarly, personalized by itself can be used to place a special emphasis on the use of technology, rather than on multiple instructional strategies. For more on the language of this emerging field, please see the accompanying glossary and sources such as: Students at the Center’s FAQs, Aurora Institute’s Mean What You Say report, and this blog by Next Generation Learning Challenges.

Given the pace and scope of these changes, many educators find themselves tackling challenges for which they are not fully prepared and devoting immeasurable energy to learning “on the fly” and on their own. Some noteworthy online and in-person professional development opportunities have emerged to support personalized, student-centered approaches. Nonetheless, state and local teacher preparation and professional development systems across the country still do relatively little to advance abilities to deliver these approaches—nor have such competencies been defined in ways that system leaders can act upon them.


Multiple frameworks and research studies now identify an increasingly coherent set of knowledge, skills and dispositions students need to succeed in the 21st century. Since 2010, Students at the Center has been working with academics and researchers to compile, synthesize, and analyze hundreds of research articles to develop a grounded definition of student-centered learning. The four key principles of student-centered learning—drawn from the mind/brain sciences, learning theory, and research on youth development—are overlapping and complementary. They are:

  • Learning is personalized
  • Learning is competency based
  • Learning takes place anytime, anywhere
  • Students have agency and ownership over their learning

In combination, and when guided by a coherent and rigorous set of educational goals, these principles provide a strong foundation for the pursuit of deeper learning.

Every school and district that shares this vision will use different techniques to translate student-centered principles into practice. Some schools will move to a fully project-based curriculum; others will have an Individual Learning Plan for each student. However, all such settings share a commitment to: 1.) reach high-quality implementation across the four key principles; 2.) achieve the goals of college, career, and civic success for all students; and 3.) focus on building communities of educators with the skills outlined in this document.

The development of Educator Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Teaching (“the Competencies”) serves as a first step in identifying the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that educators need in order to create and thrive in effective personalized, learner-centered environments. The Competencies are organized into four domains—Cognitive, Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Instructional. For each domain, we identified both high-level competencies and detailed “indicators,” which describe specific ways that educators can meet each competency in a personalized, learner-centered manner.

The lead contributors to this effort consisted of a group of national and state partners focused on increasing educational achievement for all: Jobs for the Future’s Students at the Center initiative, the Council of Chief State School OfficersInnovation Lab Network, the National Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky, the Institute@CESA#1 in Wisconsin, and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. The partners solicited and received feedback from nearly 100 school, district, and state innovators, researchers, and thought leaders from across the country. (See Appendix B for a summary of the methodology used to develop these Competencies.)

Guiding Principles

Throughout the research and writing process, we faced many difficult decisions about what the Competencies should include and how best to organize them. Together with our partners and advisors, we arrived at a number of key principles to guide and inform our work and perspective. We determined that the Competencies should:

  • Be embedded within a holistic educational vision and supported by a school culture—including professional development, curricular freedom, and other structures—to ensure their success. We recognize that many obstacles beyond teachers’ control must be cleared in order to realize success in most or all of the Competencies. The Competencies are designed to inform practitioners who work in school systems that are already making innovative, learner-centered reforms.
  • Be applied to groups of educators or whole school teams. We recognize that, taken as a whole, the full set of Competencies is aspirational. In our vision, no individual educator would be expected to have mastered all of these skills and be able to demonstrate each one flawlessly at any single moment in time. Our intent, in no way, is to ask teachers to “do more with less.” Rather, we are calling for schools, districts, and states to “do differently.”
  • Align with similar efforts to describe student competencies, system leader competencies, and system characteristics for deeper learning. Our description of the innovative, learner-centered educator is aligned with complementary efforts to describe the competencies that students need for deeper learning, the competencies that administrators need to lead personalized, learner-centered schools and districts, and the regulations and policies needed to support these efforts at scale and over time.
  • Convey a firm and explicit commitment to equity. These competencies describe the kinds of capabilities educators need to succeed with all learners, of any socio-economic background, race, ethnicity, skill level, learning disability, or culture. They are compiled from research, practice, and evidence that cross these categories. Wherever applicable, we make this commitment transparent.
  • Focus on knowledge, mindsets, and skills that go beyond general “good teaching” practices to emphasize areas that comprise successful approaches in personalized, learner-centered settings. Many existing standards and frameworks for educator development include “good teaching” practices that are applicable in all settings. Rather than reiterate these fundamentals, this framework highlights the specific competencies that are most applicable—and essential—to the distinct context of personalized, learner-centered environments.
  • Not be read as progressions or prioritized until further research can be conducted. We do not currently have enough information about the implementation of personalized, learning-centered approaches to prioritize the domains or outline a progression for training in the competencies. Our organizations, state partners, and others will be pursuing the development of such tools as the work continues and further field testing is conducted.

Why a new framework?

This is the first attempt to specifically and comprehensively identify a set of competencies for educators striving to move beyond our legacy system and practices in order to transition to personalized learning environments. At the same time, we recognize the value and substance of other more well-established frameworks, such as The Danielson Group’s Framework for Teaching, an early innovator describing high-quality teaching for learning; and The Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (InTASC), which produced a comprehensive set of Teacher Standards that point the way for states to evaluate excellence in teaching. Some of the individual competencies, particularly in the Cognitive Domain, build directly on these foundational efforts. We also incorporated some of most relevant components from newer frameworks, such as The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL)’s Blended Learning Teacher Competency Framework. (See Appendix C for the complete list of educator frameworks scanned and synthesized for this project.) Yet the Competencies and the accompanying Indicators are the only complete educator vision designed for a learner-centered setting, thereby setting this undertaking apart.

Furthermore, in contrast to teacher standards (such as InTASC), which are high-level statements of what teachers should know and be able to do, the Competencies offer an interpretation of how to translate standards within the context of personalized, student-centered learning models. (See Appendix D for a crosswalk between the Competencies and the InTASC standards.)

We hope the similarities between the Competencies and other frameworks provide a sense of familiarity and respect for the practices of many talented teachers out in the field. A personalized, learner-centered education approach does not throw out previously gained knowledge and evidence of good teaching and learning. Far from it. Instead, this framework deliberately builds a bridge from those foundations toward a vision of how the teaching profession can evolve to meet the changing needs of learners.

Who should use this framework and how?

As noted above in our Guiding Principles, we developed these Competencies for school systems already making bold strides to implement personalized, learner-centered approaches. We designed them in collaboration with these innovators to help support their efforts to develop new education models that strive for college and career readiness for all.

Our intent is for this framework to serve as a “living” tool to guide educator development so that a growing number of teachers are able to help scale the transformation to personalized, student-centered learning.

Within schools, practitioners may want to utilize the competencies for self-assessment, quality improvement, professional development, hiring decisions, and culture reinforcement. In addition, with appropriate stakeholder engagement and ongoing research, district and state leaders may find the competencies useful in informing their efforts to develop teachers, such as through the design of educator standards, licensure requirements, preparation program curricula, induction processes, or educator effectiveness systems.

Where do we go from here?

We recognize that defining personalized, learner-centered competencies is only one piece of a complex puzzle. We cannot expect educators to achieve these Competencies at any scale or level of sustainability without supportive policy, communication, school structures, school leaders, and professional development. Nor can they be adopted in the current form without piloting, evaluation, guidance, training, and improvement. Fortunately, steps are underway to start to address these many challenges.

We will follow the release of this list with a two-phase implementation plan. These additional efforts will make the competencies more practical, digital, and sustainable (e.g., by adding a video and exemplar database, and exploring potential use in teacher preparation, certification, and support). First, we are convening a meeting of policymaker and implementer teams from nine Innovation Lab Network states during summer 2015. Teams will consider how their state can begin to operationalize the competencies and how to share learning and resources as they begin to move the competencies from theory into practice. Together we will explore what additional experimentation, evidence, rubrics, and progressions may be called for in order to offer specific guidance for policymakers on how to incorporate these into workforce preparation, certification, and assessment policies.

Second, we will be turning this list into a digital tool bolstered by numerous resources, examples, and videos on the Students at the Center Hub.

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