Proficiency-based learning is a cruel experiment that has failed


Never, in my 30 years of high school teaching, have I seen an initiative do so much damage to student learning and motivation as I have with Maine’s Proficiency-Based Learning Diploma. It is a piece of feel-good legislation that was poorly conceived and enacted.

Fortunately, the Legislature is now considering repealing PBL. I hope others will join me in respectfully encouraging legislators to do so.

PBL is short-changing students in preparing them for the real world, contrary to what supporters claims. Why? In my district (which is not in the same town where I live), under PBL, there are no homework deadlines and exams can be retaken, sometimes over and over again. In addition, school attendance doesn’t count toward grades or graduation.

This is what I have observed in my classes since PBL’s implementation.

Before PBL, approximately 9 percent of my students didn’t complete homework; today the average is about 33 percent. (Recently, 41 percent of my students failed to complete a 20-minute vocabulary assignment.) Yet, I am still required to accept late work within a 10-day window.

Because of that, cheating and plagiarism are on the rise. Before PBL, approximately 8 percent of my students missed class on any given day; today the average is about 18 percent.


Last year’s graduating class had approximately 291 graduates, up from 230 the previous year — a 26 percent gain. Why such an increase in one year?  And why did some graduates miss more than 25 days of school and still graduate?

I understand that schools are under pressure to improve the graduation rate, but it is disingenuous to say that PBL is improving student learning. Next, if students fail standards during regular classes, our district offers seven credit recovery programs, including summer school in which to recover lost standards. With so many opportunities to retake standards, some students no longer take classes seriously. Their reasoning is simple. “Why put all the effort in class when it takes so much less effort to earn standards in credit recovery?”

Far too many students are learning to “game the system” so they can graduate with as little effort as possible. That diminishes the value of a high school diploma and is unfair to those students who really do work hard, attend school and make every effort to succeed.

How does this prepare students for the real world? In the real world, effort, attendance and personal responsibility count. If I fail to show up to work, carry out my responsibilities, or meet my deadlines, I will be fired — and rightfully so. In effect, PBL is taking away the students’ responsibility for learning. Imagine how this will impact the labor force.

With PBL, we are treating high school students as if they are in elementary school. In essence, we are preparing them to fail.

Looking at the Sun Journal’s three-part series on PBL (April 15-17), it is interesting to note that many who support it are policy makers and administrators. I fail to see much support from parents, students or teachers. I suspect that it is because the view from the boardroom is sometimes different from the view from the classroom. Working at the grassroots level, teachers, parents and students understand the failings of PBL.

Using our children in this state-wide experiment is unethical, especially since there is no independent, long-term research or evidence to prove that PBL improves student learning. It is just not there. If we continue with PBL, we are putting an entire generation of Maine’s young people at risk.

There are reasons why high-performing high schools are trying to retain the traditional grading system. It works. The Legislature needs to understand that our children’s futures depend on it.

Mike Bernier is a public school teacher who lives in Buckfield.

Michael Bernier