Proficiency-based learning: State mandate stirs up parents, teachers, students

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Laura Garcia poses for a portrait in her Auburn home earlier this month. Garcia, an attorney, has two daughters in the Lewiston-Auburn school system, and has become a vocal opponent of the proficiency-based learning system that schools are implementing. (Photo by Gabe Souza for Pine Tree Watch)

AUBURN — A state law now under scrutiny in the Legislature that requires a new way of granting high school diplomas worries Auburn mother Barbara Howaniec, who has seen her two high-achieving children struggle under the new system.

“I have two very bright kids who are very unmotivated right now,” said Howaniec, who has children in seventh and ninth grades in Auburn schools.

The Maine Legislature passed a law in 2012 that requires high schools to grant diplomas not on the basis of a student getting passing marks and moving up a grade each year until graduation — the way it’s been done for as long as anyone can recall — but instead on something called “proficiency-based learning.”

This means that to move forward a grade and graduate, students must actually demonstrate that they’ve mastered eight subject areas. How school districts administer proficiency-based education is up to each district.

Howaniec is one of more than 1,400 parents who joined a private Facebook group called Mainers Concerned About Proficiency Based Learning. Some spoke at a State House public hearing last Monday about last-minute proposals that would repeal, alter or delay the controversial new system.

Hours of testimony before the Joint Committee on Education included Lake Region High School teachers saying PBL is helping students learn, and Lake Region student Aisley Sturk saying PBL “is more clear and efficient than traditional education ever was. It has helped me gain essential skills that I will use for life.”

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And it included Somerset County physical education teacher Jack Kaplan saying he opposes PBL: “The staff, teachers, the principal, the kids, the parents, everyone attached to proficiency-based learning is stressed by this.”

Howaniec was one of nearly a dozen parents who gathered informally recently to talk about the state’s requirement that by 2021, all Maine students graduate with a diploma based on whether they can show mastery in eight areas of learning.

While the state law does not require school districts to abandon A-F grading or to change how they supply college transcripts, some have adopted proficiency-based changes, such as giving 1-4 grades.

“It just doesn’t make sense to repeal a grading system, a learning system, teaching system, that has existed,” Howaniec said. “Sure, it may be imperfect, but figure out what’s not working and work on that. They chose to pull it and replace it without a trial. No trial, no evidence that it works.”

The Maine Department of Education defines proficiency-based education as “any system of academic instruction, assessment, grading and reporting that is based on students demonstrating mastery of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn before they progress to the next lesson, get promoted to the next grade level or receive a diploma.”

The proficiency-based diploma law requires school districts to implement their own systems to make sure high school students achieve proficiency in English language arts, math, science and technology, social studies, health education and physical education, visual and performing arts, career and education development and world languages.

Since the law passed in 2012, some districts have made major changes, even granting diplomas based on proficiency-based education, while others are much further behind in the process.

The state never defined proficiency, never told the school districts which grading system to use, and has yet to issue rules about how to implement it. leaving some teachers and parents confused, concerned and angry.

From one teacher’s perspective, part of the difficulty is finding the right balance between a state mandate and local control.

“In northern New England, we champion local control. We demand it,” Edward Little High School teacher Evan Cyr said recently. “And the state gives it to us. But in doing so, they give us enough rope to hang ourselves. Because now, they are not accountable about how we do that.”

Statewide, $8 million in taxpayer money has been spent to implement the new system, according to the Maine Department of Education.

In addition, more than $13 million has come into Maine from the Massachusetts-based Nellie Mae Education Foundation to support the roll-out of proficiency-based education, according to tax filings by the charity.

Nine school districts will be awarding proficiency-based diplomas this year, two are scheduled for 2019, 10 will be ready in 2020 and the rest have to be ready to award diplomas based on proficiency-based education in 2021 under the law, the department said.

The new diploma system was one of the major education initiatives championed by Gov. Paul LePage. With the pending legislative proposals, however, the proficiency-based diploma law could be significantly altered, delayed or scrapped entirely in the final year of LePage’s eight years in office.

On Friday, the Legislature’s Education Committee voted 9-3 to remove the requirement that districts must issue proficiency-based diplomas, meaning districts could choose to continue the diplomas or revert back to diplomas based on completion of course credits. But there are many votes still ahead on the issue, and speculation that if a bill weakening the current law reaches LePage’s desk, he will veto it, likely pushing the whole matter to next year.

‘WHAT ARE WE DOING?’

Across the country, 16 states have considered, and to some extent adopted, what the National Conference of State Legislatures describes as “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. But in New England, the states of Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine all took a much more aggressive approach, passing laws to require a switch to proficiency-based diplomas.

PBL has dominated school committee meetings in Lewiston and Auburn, with some parents, students and teachers criticizing it, while other students, teachers and administrators have praised it.

Laurie Frumiento, an Auburn mother of six, moved her older children out of the school system in 2013 but still has younger children in the district.

“I think this program is just set up with every opportunity in the world to put in the minimal amount of work,” she said.

Frumiento said she worries that the system will lead to more screen time for teens who already spend too much time in front of a computer or phone. And she doesn’t understand why there was no pilot program; for example, using one grade or school to test it before it was rolled out for an entire school system.

“They are putting a lot of responsibility on kids that aren’t developmentally ready,” Frumiento said, referring to how schools are administering proficiency-based lessons. “They need to be guided by a professional educator, that’s what they go to college for.”

Laura Garcia, a parent of two children in the Auburn schools, said she’s hearing comments from parents of other high-achieving students that the system is “dumbing down” lessons to shore up the performance of students who need extra help, leaving other students to work ahead and fend for themselves.

“My biggest worry is proficiency-based learning,” Garcia said. “While esteemed experts say students will take an interest in their education, it’s having the opposite effect. It’s causing motivation to drop, especially among the highest achievers. What are we doing?”

Before proficiency-based learning was implemented, Garcia said her daughter would learn from other students, even be competitive with them. But now she’s on a computer pushing forward by herself with oversight from a teacher, Garcia said.

On Feb. 26, Lewiston students, parents and teachers blasted the switch to 1-4 PBL grading. On March 19, Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said starting in the fall, the high school is junking 1-4 grading and returning to 0-100. He made the change to end the controversy and “the paralysis that is restricting our ability to move forward.”

On March 14, Auburn parent Garcia told the School Committee that PBL is “an experiment which is failing miserably.” She and other parents asked for a public forum on PBL.

At the next meeting on March 21, teachers defended PBL. Edward Little science teacher Peter Marris said the work teachers are doing on PBL is valid. “It’s best for kids. We’re going in the right direction.”

Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin said she is forming a task force to address parent concerns.

Auburn School Committee Chairman Tom Kendall said Auburn has been working to shift to standards-based learning for years, long before the 2012 diploma law was passed. The shift is needed, Kendall said, because existing public education fails too many students, evidenced by the number of remedial classes high school graduates take in college.

An education model based on proficiency requires a student to use the knowledge they’ve gained to solve problems and apply their understanding, “not just parrot the facts or memorize the answer,” Kendall said. “We want all our graduates to be able to think and respond to future challenges. A proficiency-based model of education seeks to deliver on that hope for all our students.”

Sun Journal Staff Writer Bonnie Washuk contributed to this report. 

Tomorrow: While many critics of PBL have come forward, many supporters of the system are also speaking out, including RSU 2 Superintendent William Zima, whose schools include those in Monmouth, Hallowell and Richmond.

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

What is PBL?

Hidden behind the “proficiency-based learning” lingo is a simple idea: that students should master the basics in a number of subjects, including math, science and social studies, before they receive a diploma that ought to signal their readiness for college or a career.

How to pull that off, though, is where a lofty idea gets tricky, in part because no rules or guidelines have been issued to schools on how to implement it. Educators who back the initiative hope it will bring about a new student-centered, innovative system that will get youngsters excited about learning. But others worry it will wind up stifling students instead and may limit the opportunities of high achievers.

At its most basic, proficiency-based education requires students to demonstrate they have mastered a defined set of skills before they can move on to the next set. Students must keep working with teachers until they can demonstrate mastery of each set of skills.

Proficiency-Based Learning

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