Ah, election season—when a few hot topics are shoved into the national discourse, and others, like learning, get hardly any airtime. With politics on the minds of many, it’s a good time to consider what policy approaches could best promote learning innovation at the national, state, and local levels. Here is our wish list of broad topics we’d like to see at the forefront of learning policy.

Competency-Based Education and Learning Pathways

First, let’s look at how course credit is awarded. Traditionally, credit accumulation is based on “seat time”—a designated amount of time students are required to spend in a public school classroom. That means most students move through coursework and grade levels at the same pace. Under a competency-based model, students can progress once they have mastered the required content.

Some states, like Florida, have implemented personalized learning pathways in lieu of seat time requirements, expanding opportunities for students while ensuring that schools receive the same per-pupil funding. In Arizona, students get the same high school credit for content mastered outside of the K-12 system—at a community college or career prep program, for example.


As we leave behind No Child Left Behind’s “one size fits all” approach, increasing flexibility is key. The law’s successor, ESSA, opens the door to decision-making based on local contexts, without stringent federal standards that limit innovation. Already, waivers easing state requirements allow schools to cater to students’ needs and build robust interdisciplinary programs. See New Mexico, which pioneered a program last year that allowed teachers of STEM subjects to use waivers to teach other subjects under that umbrella. 


State and federal funding for education could be allocated to better encourage learning innovation. For example, the federal Investing in Innovation Fund supports cross-sector solutions to public education problems like the achievement gap. However, a critical complement is legislation like the Massachusetts Information Technology Bond Bill, which funds basic tech and broadband access to schools.

Computer Science Education

Analysts project that by 2020, employers will only be able to fill one-third of the 1.4 million computer science jobs with U.S. college graduates, suggesting a disconnect between what’s being taught in the classroom and what the workforce demands.

A number of states have toyed with different incentives for high school students to take computer science courses. In Pennsylvania, such courses can satisfy a math or science requirement; in Arkansas, they count as foreign language courses. Chicago Public Schools just made it a graduation requirement. But acknowledging that it’s often a question of access, not motivation, President Obama has proposed more than $4 billion for states and districts to offer computer science education. 

Career and Technical Training 

It’s time we say goodbye to the bubble test as we know it.
We recently wrote about how a high school education can—and must—put more students on the path to a successful career. Many states and schools have incorporated career preparation into the curriculum through in-school “career academies” and partnerships with local workforce, among other approaches. West Virginia high school students, for example, can take free online courses sponsored by Microsoft and graduate with an IT certificate. Schools in Louisiana are required to collaborate with businesses and higher education to offer a “career diploma” to those who want it. The challenge is to build career pathways for all students, regardless of whether they are college-bound or interested in a vocation.


It’s time we say goodbye to the bubble test as we know it. Assessment practices must be reconfigured to capture 21st century skills. In Tennessee in 2012, for example, the state required a new civics test to be a project-based assessment of “real world” situations. For example, some of the schools have students identify problems in their communities and propose policy solutions. While being conscious of the potential for bias and subjectivity in these kinds of assessments, creators of new tests can work to better evaluate the competencies this generation will need.