I read with great interest the recent op-ed by state Rep. Heidi Sampson about proficiency-based learning (“In Maine schools, ‘proficiency’ may not mean what you think it does,” March 20). Rep. Sampson says Mainers are being “hoodwinked.” I agree, but I disagree on who is doing the hoodwinking.

Rep. Sampson’s attempts to paint proficiency-based education as having a negative impact on education and our students are disingenuous and possibly uninformed. I am sure that she, as a Republican, is aware that this bill passed in 2012, under a Republican Legislature and a Republican governor. So, her distrust of how the Maine public education system is interpreting the law seems to aim to undo what her own party decided upon.

I was asked to serve on the Oxford Hills School District’s proficiency committee after the law was enacted. I remember the initial meetings and the frustration that we, as a committee, felt at this fuzzy mandate coming from the state. We were lacking in any direction or instruction. All of the questions we asked of the state were met with “We don’t know” or “We are still trying to find out.” The answers did not come for months, some for years. Yet school districts spent money in good faith trying to develop a plan centered on this vague law.

The state provided us with some funding to help. Many school districts worked cooperatively. Teachers, building administrators and curriculum directors put in countless hours after school and during the summer putting together something that would best serve the children of our state, all without the help of the people who imposed this new mandate.

Some school districts that implemented proficiency-based learning early on found themselves in front of angry groups of parents or facing the backlash of Facebook justice. I didn’t see any state senators or state representatives step into the fray to help explain the law’s original intent. Most likely, they stayed quiet because they themselves were not clear on the guidelines, either, since they hadn’t provided us with any when the law was passed.

I also have yet to see the governor step up to say, “Hey, this is not the school districts’ fault; this is something the state government enacted and asked them to implement.” If this truly is one of “his key education reform efforts,” as described in a recent Press Herald news article, then it is time for him to stand up and support the effort and those who have worked so hard (despite limited guidance) to implement it.

That said, proficiency-based learning has been a huge positive for the students in our district. It has opened communication between educators, the school board and the community about what good work, or proficiency, looks like. Our district has worked and continues to work tirelessly to build a K-12 system with consistent grading practices as well as consistent expectations.

The new grading system is designed to clearly show students what they need in order to be proficient in a subject. In the past, students were often asked to complete an assignment or a project without a clear guideline for success. With a proficiency-based system, students are given detailed descriptions of the skills and knowledge they’re expected to demonstrate in order to progress through their education. Proficiency-based learning helps students assess what they do know and has become less about dinging them for what they don’t know. We have had meetings with parents and community members discussing what our grading system will look like.

For us, this has become – despite the vague intentions of the state – about equity, access and high expectations for our students. Our school board is supportive of the proficiency plan that we have developed and will move forward with it, whether the state continues to require it or not.

Quite honestly, it feels like the state said, “Paint the house,” the school districts asked, “What color? Which house?” and the state said nothing. So finally, the districts picked a house and a color and began painting – and now the state is outraged that we are painting a house.

To opponents of proficiency-based learning in Augusta, I have this to say: Seriously, get out of the way of education. Let us teach. Let us implement one of your mandates before you begin another one. You make educating our children difficult with your misguided opinions and vague mandates.

 

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