Proficiency-based education is the outgrowth of a movement that began a generation ago.

In the 1980s, education leaders began developing content standards and creating a more rigorous curricula with specific goals and expectations for students’ skills and knowledge.

The Maine Learning Results were approved in 1997. The document was not a curriculum, but it set standards for content and measures for what students “should know and be able to do.”

A proficiency-based diploma was a long-term goal of the Maine Learning Results law, but schools never got there.

One reason was that the standards were applied to a flawed infrastructure that placed students on a one-size-fits-all assembly line and pushed them along despite gaps in their knowledge, said Maine Superintendent of Instruction Donald Siviski.

Too many students have graduated with diplomas full of holes, Siviski said. He thinks that advancing in school should be more like a earning a Boy Scout merit badge: a Scout can complete a project anytime or anywhere, but he has to do the work to earn the badge.

Siviski became a convert to proficiency-based education after attending an institute about it at Harvard in 1998. “It was about accountability, not just going through the motions,” he said.

In Dover-Foxcroft, where Siviski was superintendent at the time, work started with adapting curriculum to the Maine Learning Results and articulating standards for teachers to follow.

In Hall-Dale schools, where Siviski became superintendent in 2002, the transition again started with curriculum. Teachers were organized into subject teams for kindergarten through 12th grade. In 2005, once what students would be taught was established, the school changed how students were taught.

Standards-based education spread to Dresden, Monmouth and Richmond after those towns joined Farmingdale and Hallowell in 2009 to form Regional School Unit 2.

Meanwhile, similar movements were taking place elsewhere in the state, including at Searsport District High School. The school received a grant from the Portland-based Great Schools Partnership to develop a set of standards and enact proficiency-based education in 2003.

The new approach gained the attention of the Department of Education under Susan Gendron, who was education commissioner from 2003 to 2010.

Between 2009 and 2011, the state paid $1.2 million to the Alaksa-based Re-Inventing Schools Coalition to train staff in six school districts to implement their model for proficiency-based education.

When that source of funding dried up, the six districts — RSU 2, Oakland-based RSU 18, Jackman-based RSU 82, Gray-based RSU 15, Waterboro-based RSU 57 and the Milford School District — formed the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning in 2010.

Members work together on curriculum and training, and they meet monthly to report their progress and share best practices.

The group doubled in size in 2011 to include a dozen school districts. Five more districts — plus the University of New England in Biddeford and Thomas College in Waterville — have asked to join.

— Susan McMillan


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