The Key to Successful Expanded Learning Programs Is Mastery


A well-rounded education is defined by a broader set of outcomes than traditionally outlined in academic standards and standardized tests. Educators and other stakeholders alike are increasingly interested in the so-called soft skills related to social and emotional learning, creativity and innovation, and citizenship.

But how do we ensure that all students, especially disadvantaged students, have sufficient time and opportunity to attain all the skills needed for college, career, and the global innovation economy beyond?

“Expanded learning” has become a catchphrase for a variety of different models that aim to expand learning time and experiences for students. Some models provide more time for learning by extending the school day and school year. Other models restructure the school schedule and leverage school-based afterschool and summer programs provided by community partners to expand access to hands-on learning experiences—in core subjects as well as others that have been increasingly cut from the school day, such as arts and music or health and wellness. A variety of models focus on leveraging technology through blended learning, flipped classroom, and “anywhere, anytime” opportunities that extend and expand learning beyond the school classroom and calendar. Still others focus on providing credit for learning that takes place outside the school day and beyond the school building, whether formal course credit, elective credit, or informal credit in the form of a digital badge.

Despite being driven by the need to graduate students who are proficient across a broader set of outcomes than those currently defined in the standards and assessed through standardized tests, few of the emerging expanded learning models are operating in the context of an established mastery-based or competency-based system. And yet, to ensure expanded learning programs are successful, one must be able to to recognize learning reliably and authentically based on students’ demonstrated mastery of a defined set of competencies.

This presents significant opportunities as well as challenges. On the one hand, expanded learning models represent an opportunity to consider education reform from the context of the student, rather than the system. Expanded learning is creating new approaches to organizing education around student needs and interests, regardless of when, where, how, or with whom learning happens. However, expanded learning cannot be successful without an established system for defining what criteria constitute accomplishment of learning, and how those criteria will be measured in a way that is valid and reliable. Otherwise, expanded learning may eventually be seen as a more relevant but ultimately less rigorous way to earn credit.

While policy catches up to the vision for competency-based systems, schools, afterschool providers, and community partners can start supporting shifts in practice. One of the important cornerstones of competency-based education is authenticity. Authentic learning is what afterschool programs do inherently, but many are not yet at the level of rigor required in a competency-based system.

Expanded learning programs need to:

  • Commit to focus learning around specific outcomes shared across the school and community that are “Common Core and more,” addressing the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that students will need to succeed in the world beyond school.
  • Provide high-quality project-based learning experiences that are aligned to competencies and engage students in the meaningful work of professionals in the real world.
  • Collaborate with schools and districts to support performance-based assessments that measure to what extent students can actually apply the knowledge and skills contained in the competencies and standards.

While all three of these things are fundamental to a competency-based system, they are also just good practice and can strengthen expanded learning programs, while at the same time preparing them to be strong partners to schools in a competency-based system.

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