Bill Gates, Paul LePage among those supporting elements of proficiency-based education

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Who supports proficiency-based learning?

The list includes Microsoft founder and billionaire Bill Gates, Maine Gov. Paul LePage and at least 16 states, four in New England.

MAINE’S PUSH FROM THE TOP

LePage has long been a supporter, and that has continued as the Legislature currently deals with proposals to change the state’s existing PBL law.

“The governor wants to ensure that, with both the original bill and the new bill, the high school diploma means something. The new bill clarifies that the standards for the diploma are different than any instructional technique used to get there,” said Julie Rabinowitz, LePage’s press secretary, in a recent email.

Sixteen states have considered and, to some extent, adopted what the National Conference of State Legislatures calls “competency-based education.” Many states created pilot programs or received competitive grants to give local school districts flexibility to try this new approach to education.

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HOW NEW ENGLAND STANDS OUT

Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine took a more-aggressive approach, passing laws to require a switch to proficiency-based diplomas.

Gates has been a strong supporter of the system, giving Massachusetts-based Nellie Mae Education Foundation $2.4 million from 2010 to 2016 to assist with the implementation of PBL. The foundation has been a leading force behind proficiency-based learning.

The roots of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation stretch back to 1990, when the student loan financing organization Nellie Mae Corporation created a nonprofit “pioneering philanthropy in the student loan industry,” according to its website.

The foundation has net assets of more than $487 million, according to its financial statements filed with the IRS in November 2017. While its mission has changed over the years, it has consistently supported “student-centered learning models” since 2010.

‘DESIGNED FOR A DIFFERENT ERA’

The foundation’s philosophy, spelled out on its website:

“Only 50 percent of high school students are leaving with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in post-secondary settings” and less than a third of low-income students “are college and career ready,” the foundation stated in a 2015 report. The report notes foundation leaders are especially concerned that New England’s racial and ethnic minorities are particularly “underserved by our schools and other public systems.”

To that end, the foundation has poured money into what it views as an approach to schools that is not so focused on grade levels, age and what it sees as a traditional system created to boost elite students and prepare the rest for blue collar work.

The traditional model in public schools is “designed for a different era,” Nellie Mae Policy Director Charlie Toulmin said in an interview last week, aiming merely “to move kids along based on their birth dates.”

Nellie Mae is pressing to have New England public schools, especially high schools, adopt more student-centered approaches that it believes will offer a “much greater variety” of opportunities both within and beyond the classroom.

MAINE’S INTEREST PREDATES NELLIE MAE

Toulmin said PBL was already in the works in Maine before his foundation played any role. It has since provided millions of dollars to some schools, districts, nonprofits and the state to help move the initiative along, according to tax filings by the foundation. All told, more than $13 million has come into Maine from Nellie Mae to support the new PBL system in public schools.

Toulmin said Portland has been a particular success story in making its three high schools more collaborative. Educate Maine and the Good Schools Partnership are two groups that have also received funding.

The challenge in trying to improve a public education system is that implementing a new approach “is really hard work” that takes time, Toulmin said. Maine is “still on the implementation journey” and has not worked everything out yet.

It is going better in some places than others, he said, but he declined to name them.

“It’s hard work,” Toulmin said, “and it doesn’t happen overnight.”

LAWMAKER: NO ‘CONSPIRACY’

In addition to money from Nellie Mae, the state has earmarked more than $8 million in funding to help districts implement the system, according to the Maine Department of Education.

Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, who sponsored the original bill to create the new diploma system and current chairman of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, said his school district is thriving with the new system.

He rejected the contention by some parents that out-of-state money somehow drove the changes.

“If somebody’s looking to try to hang this on some mysterious conspiracy theory, on money from out of state, no, that’s not it,” Langley said. “We’re just looking for better outcomes for kids.”

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part daily series on proficiency-based learning, an educational approach mandated by the state that has raised concerns among teachers and parents, and is currently being debated in the Legislature.

Tomorrow: An Auburn teacher voices the common concern that a lack of state guidance has created challenges and confusion for teachers, students and parents. And a look at what’s next.

Students raise their hands earlier this month in Emily Talmage’s class at Montello School in Lewiston. Talmage is an outspoken critic of the proposed proficiency-based learning program that Lewiston and Auburn are considering. (Photo by Gabe Souza for Pine Tree Watch)

Proficiency-Based Learning

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