Farmingdale father Tom Lynch thinks his daughters’ schools can serve as an example for other districts considering proficiency-based education. That example, however, reveals both positives and negatives, he said.

Lynch likes the idea of allowing students to work at their own pace, as envisioned in the educational approach Hallowell-based Regional School Unit 2 is pioneering.

But he thinks the transition has been disorganized and confusing, and that it may have permanently alienated parents who otherwise might have supported proficiency-based education.

“The hard part for me is our school is being used as an example of how to do this, when I feel there should be a lot of lessons learned from the mistakes that we’ve made in the process,” Lynch said.

Hall-Dale schools started using aspects of proficiency-based education in 2005. The approach was introduced to schools in Dresden, Monmouth and Richmond after those towns joined Farmingdale and Hallowell in 2009 to form Regional School Unit 2.

All schools are using the 1-4 grading system this year, with the exception of high school seniors.

The school district’s transition isn’t finished. Superintendent Virgel Hammonds said, for instance, officials haven’t decided when students will cease to be grouped by age.

While the process has taken several years, some people in the district say it has been rushed, without adequate planning, and that officials disregarded parents’ concerns.

“They’ve been pushing this thing through without getting any input from parents and the taxpayers of this district,” Hallowell father Jeff Romano. “They haven’t made the case why we need to make this switch, why they need to make it in such a hurry.”

Hammonds said the district’s work is not based on a specific timeline or plan.

“A lot of folks ask for that,” he said. “They want to know when this will be done, when will that be done. We’re putting things together as we see kids’ needs to be met or teachers in need of support.”

The public did have some input into the changes.

The district’s Standards-Based System Ad Hoc Committee, which included parents and students, developed a vision statement. The RSU 2 school board approved the statement a year ago, after several “visioning sessions” that drew more than 200 attendees, according to the district’s website.

Parents and teachers also served on the Standards-Based Reporting Implementation Team, which tried to smooth the transition for new grading and transcripts in Hall-Dale schools.

Some former members of the group, however, say many of its recommendations were never heeded, and key elements are still missing, including a plan to evaluate the effectiveness of the new approach.

Maine Superintendent of Instruction Donald Siviski, who started RSU 2’s transition to proficiency-based education when he was superintendent there, attributes the resistance to the difficulty of making such major changes, especially considering that some people didn’t see the need to change at all.

“Change is hard; it’s a cultural change,” Siviski said. “A thing? You can change a thing like that. But to change a practice and a belief takes awhile.”

In September 2010, 82.3 percent of the teachers in the district committed to proficiency-based education, according to an update posted to the RSU 2 website last spring.

Regional School Unit 18 Superintendent Gary Smith said a consultant from the Reinventing Schools Coalition, the Alaska-based group that has trained Maine educators in the proficiency-based model, praised the Oakland-based district’s deliberate approach.

“His comment made to us a year ago now was, ‘You folks are going very cautiously, slow, so that you can go fast,'” Smith said. “We are very cautiously moving this along because we know this is a big change.”

Some teachers have converted to standards-based practices, and the district may start mixing up classes later this year to group students by proficiency. The teachers who have made the switch are getting their colleagues excited and talking to parents about it, Assistant Superintendent Linda Laughlin said.

While educators who support proficiency-based education are excited about its potential, some will admit to anxiety and say they understand why parents might be concerned, too.

“You’re out there, and you’re sort of pioneering the way to go,” Laughlin said. “You’ve got children in the school system. It’s sort of like building a plane while it’s flying. You want to take care of kids, and you don’t want to jump out too far ahead and not do it well.”

— Susan McMillan

 


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