Quinn Stebbins finds his school assignments more interesting than he used to. For instance, in a recent essay he recounted the ups and downs of the Rollins Furniture Little League team’s 9-3 season, heartbreaking playoff game loss and ultimate tournament consolation game win.

The eighth-grader said he chose the topic because “Ms. Raymond told me I was better writing about things that I’m passionate about.”

In Cindy Raymond’s eighth-grade language arts class at Hall-Dale Middle School in Farmingdale, Quinn and his classmates get more flexibility to choose their assignments than they did in the past and they get to do them at their own pace.

During Raymond’s narrative writing unit, students could choose any topic, true or fictional, for their stories. They just had to make sure they could meet certain standards, such as organizing an event sequence that unfolds naturally and using “word choice and sensory details to convey experiences and events.”

Throughout Hall-Dale Middle School and Regional School Unit 2, teachers are giving students more flexibility to choose their assignments and allowing them to complete them at their own pace.

The approach — known as standards-based, or proficiency-based, education — is taking hold in various forms in school districts across the state. With the program, priority is given to making sure a student understands a subject or concept, rather than having a student achieve a grade by the end of the year and move on to the next level of school. Ideally, students get more one-on-one instruction from teachers, can find a pace and way of learning that helps them understand concepts better and can give feedback and ask questions that will help them learn.

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Quinn said the approach has helped him and other students become more engaged at school. Previously, Quinn said, he had to write a lot of essays, but would have rather created a computer slideshow or acted out a skit to show that he understood the topic.

“The students get to get more from their learning,” he said. “They get more involved instead of having the teachers make projects. Before this, I used to think of so many projects that I could be doing instead of what the teachers made.”

Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen wants to make all Maine public school classrooms more like those at Hall-Dale, and the state’s goal is to make it happen in the next decade.

The system is an overhaul of the way students have traditionally been taught in America.

Bowen is among those who say the traditional approach has reached its limit. It was developed when the electric telegraph was the height of communications technology, most people worked on farms or in factories and doctors weren’t required to hold a bachelor’s degree.

Despite the addition of laptop computers, interactive whiteboards and video conferencing technology, many core elements of the system remain unchanged.

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“Everybody’s working very hard,” Bowen said. “Our educators are working hard, our administrators are working hard, everybody is trying their best to make this work, but we’re just not moving the needle. Test scores are flat. We’re still struggling to get graduation rates up and dropout rates down.”

Some educators and policymakers believe proficiency-based education, which is what Maine officials are calling it, is the jump-start the education system needs.

Maine Superintendent of Instruction Donald Siviski borrows language from education researcher Robert Marzano to explain the differences between the existing education system and the new model.

“Before, the constant was four years, and then the variable was learning,” Siviski said. “Now, learning is going to be the constant, and the variable is going to be time.”

At least 22 districts and high schools in the state have decided to teach students using proficiency-based methods. Soon all schools in Maine’s 164 districts may soon be required to do so.

In January, a legislative panel endorsed a bill requiring schools to provide proficiency-based diplomas by 2017, affecting students who are now in seventh grade. A waiver was recently added that would give some schools until 2020. Under the bill, students would no longer earn credits for time spent in school, but would instead have to show they understand specific concepts and skills.

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As the new education model takes hold in Maine, it’s drawing both acclaim and criticism.

Students are allowed to repeat tests and assignments as often as necessary to achieve “proficiency” on each standard, meaning they must demonstrate they understand a specific concept. They also have more freedom to show their understanding through creative projects and independent study, get progress reports with numbers instead of letter grades and are grouped together based on what they know instead of by age-based grade levels.

Bowen said students won’t meet the education standards that have been set by the state and federal governments if the tradition of grouping them by physical age continues to be the norm.

Changing the system

Bowen said he was aware of the proficiency-based education movement before he became commissioner in March 2011, but he became committed to the concept after he traveled around the state talking to students and teachers.

Bowen said he heard complaints from students who were bored in class and teachers who found themselves teaching to standardized tests rather than teaching subjects so that children actually learned them.

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The state’s students are making progress is some areas, but are stalled in others. On last year’s Maine High School Assessment tests, students scored best in reading, with 50 percent at or above proficient, and worst in science, with only 44 percent at or above proficient.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress — given to fourth- and eighth-graders — Maine students’ average scores have risen in math during the past decade, but have fallen in reading.

Bowen said he was impressed by the schools that voluntarily started looking into proficiency-based curricula, including members of a group called the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning. That group, which meets monthly to share strategies and helps train teachers on the method, started meeting in late 2010 with six school districts and by last year had 12. More school districts have asked to join.

Bowen was also fascinated by the 2010 book “Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning,” by Beatrice McGarvey and Chuck Schwan, which calls for “transformational change” in the education system using the proficiency-based method. Bowen assigned his department heads and curriculum team to read the book, and then the department sent the book to every school superintendent in the state.

Now a consultant, McGarvey is the former executive director of education for Portland Public Schools and frequently works with members of the customized learning group.

Linda Laughlin, assistant superintendent in Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18 and co-chairman of the group, said that McGarvey and Schwan’s book “helped us to start to really think … about how we really change the delivery system and the structure of school so that we don’t assume that all 9-year-olds will walk into the same grade and sit there from September to June.”

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The Department of Education also hired Siviski — who began working there part-time last April, while still superintendent of Hallowell-based RSU 2 — to lead the charge on proficiency-based education. He has been meeting with Maine school superintendents, college administrators, business owners and others, sharing information and fielding questions.

While the education department pushes proficiency-based education, most of the work so far has happened within the districts, among teachers, administrators and school board members.

“For us in this district, it’s really been grassroots,” Laughlin said. “Our community has been able to weigh in, teachers have gotten excited — sometimes we can’t move fast enough for some of our teachers in implementing it. That’s why we keep asking the commissioner not to force this.”

Deadlines loom

Bowen and Siviski said they value Maine’s tradition of local control. So as the department sets timelines for schools to move toward a proficiency-based plan, they are also attempting to persuade local officials to explore it on their own.

They don’t want a repeat of the angst surrounding Maine’s 2007 school consolidation law. Some communities felt coerced to consolidate their school district by the threat of a reduction in state funding — a penalty that was repealed last year.

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Proficiency-based education is part of the state Department of Education’s new strategic plan as a way to increase choice and flexibility for students and their families. Those themes were recently highlighted in other educational reforms that the administration of Gov. Paul LePage announced last month, including charter schools and an expanded school choice program.

The department’s strategic plan calls for mandatory proficiency-based diplomas, meaning students graduate only after demonstrating they know what they’re supposed to, as opposed to accumulating a total number of class credits in order to graduate.

The department wants the Legislature to approve a diploma mandate this session. The Education and Cultural Affairs Committee unanimously endorsed a bill, L.D. 1422, for the measure in January.

It would require students to meet specific standards outlined in the Maine Learning Results, which are the parameters set up by the state for what students must learn, as well as the five “guiding principles,” which education officials call “soft skills,” such as communication and creativity.

In addition, students must have English, math, and science and technology every year of high school. But the bill does not specify a number of years students must attend high school or minimum credit requirements. The legislation would repeal diploma requirements that call for “a minimum four-year program” with four years of English, two years of social studies, two years of math and one year of fine arts.

The bill requires that schools offer a proficiency-based diploma by 2017, but the education committee has added a waiver that would give them until 2020. The legislation doesn’t specify how the state will enforce those deadlines.

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As schools shift to proficiency-based education, they may also go through a middle step to offer what Siviski calls a “standards-referenced” diploma. High schools could still set minimum credit requirements like they do now, but students would also have to prove they understand every specific standard within a course, rather than receiving an average grade of all tests and assignments.

Siviski said “standards-referenced” means that the school doesn’t average grades anymore, but still gives credits: “I’m still counting beans for graduation.”

On the other hand, the full model means the students have to meet all the standards, “take as long as it takes, but there’s no credits,” and the student has to show proficiency in everything as he or she goes. Ideally, Siviski said, all Maine public schools would adopt a full standards-based approach by 2021.

‘Massive transition’

More school districts are exploring proficiency-based education and reorganizing the way their students are taught around the concept.

Last week, the education committee received a statement of support for L.D. 1422 that was signed by 47 education leaders, including administrators from 28 school districts.

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Bowen said superintendents around the state are generally receptive to learning more.

“In talking with schools, I haven’t had anyone say they’re not interested,” Bowen said. “The concern is how are we going to do it? We’re struggling just to keep the lights on. How are we going to make this massive transition?”

Portland schools are using grant money from the Massachusetts-based Nellie Mae Educational Foundation to shift to a proficiency-based diploma, which is already under way at Casco Bay High School.

Casco Bay, an alternative high school with about 275 students, has used a numerical, standards-based grading system since its founding in 2005.

The school is part of a network of Expeditionary Learning schools and was chosen as one of the group’s national mentor schools. The school’s website said it focuses on the new three R’s — “rigor, relevance and relationships” — and sent 100 percent of the students in its first two graduating classes to college.

The “learning expeditions” the school focuses on are “long-term, in-depth studies of a single topic that explore compelling social justice questions, incorporate vital standards, involve fieldwork and culminate in an authentic project, product or performance,” the website says.

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It describes its standards-based program as each course being built around 10 to 15 standards, or long-term “learning targets,” that must be met. Within each of those are shorter-term targets, which are stepping stones to the standards.

While Casco Bay is an alternative school, the new comprehensive plan for the rest of Portland’s schools recommends “standards-based teaching, learning and reporting” for all schools in the district.

At South Portland High School, educators have been working in earnest for a few years to personalize learning, according to Principal Scott Holland, and have now completed the curriculum work that’s the first step to enacting proficiency-based education.

“I think that’s a direction that we’re actually heading in, whether the law’s on the books or not,” Holland said.

Although many people think the new approach has potential, there are plenty of concerns about whether it’s feasible, according to Rich Abramson, superintendent of Readfield-based RSU 38.

“What we’re not hearing is what the funds are that are available to help schools” shift to proficiency-based education, Abramson said. “It requires intense professional development. You do things very differently. Everybody’s got to be on the same page.”

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Proficiency-based education also requires revising course curriculum, training teachers and buying technology to help teachers keep track of each student’s progress as they show whether they understand the standards in each subject.

Janet Kliegel, superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District in central California, said cost was not an issue for her district when it switched to proficiency-based education. Kliegel said Lindsay was able to work within its existing budget and teacher training schedule by buying different training materials and electronic report card software than they had previously used.

“We just traded one cost for another,” Kliegel said.

Maine Education Association President Chris Galgay said he likes proficiency-based education in theory, but he also worries about school districts finding the money and teachers finding the time to learn the new system.

Most school districts close for five professional development days during the school year, Galgay said, and that’s already insufficient in many cases.

“My board of directors was saying just that we can’t keep defending a 100-year-old model — they’re willing to change,” Galgay said. “But how do-able is this? And where is the support? I’m tired of hearing people (in state government) saying we need to do these things, but there’s no resources.”

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An unfunded mandate

The Office of Fiscal and Program review has attached a fiscal note to L.D. 1422 that labels the proficiency-based diploma an unfunded mandate that would impose “moderate” costs for local school districts.

According to the Maine Constitution, local governments do not have to follow such mandates that are not at least 90 percent funded by the state or that are not approved by a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate to exempt it from the funding requirement.

The fiscal note also says that the Department of Education has the budgeted resources to “coordinate the development of standards, assessments and rubrics,” in a way that could reduce the cost to school districts.

Bowen acknowledged that funding is “pretty thin” at both the state and local levels.

Only a few of the school districts have received grants to help with the change, he said, and yet they have managed to do the necessary work in a difficult economy by refocusing professional development spending.

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He also said there are other ways he thinks the education department can help districts, particularly serving as a clearinghouse for information, similar to the role the Maine Cohort for Customized learning is now fulfilling for some schools.

Using a $100,000 grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the education department hired a researcher to write case studies of six districts using proficiency-based education. The studies, which will be posted online in the coming months, will include lessons learned after schools adopt the new system, and samples of their policies and report cards.

Bowen said those case studies will provide a better sense of how much the transition will cost school districts.

But for now, Bowen said, he and state officials don’t know what it will cost.

“I think we need to continue to investigate what the districts who are doing this are doing, and how much it’s costing them, and build that out,” he said.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]

 


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