Teacher: Lack of state guidance crippling proficiency-based learning progress

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Evan Cyr teaches science at Edward Little High School and is one of many Maine teachers concerned about aspects of the current proficiency-based learning law and its implementation. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Editor’s note: This is the third 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.

Edward Little High School teacher Evan Cyr has two daughters in Auburn schools, one in pre-kindergarten and one in first grade.

As a teacher, Cyr likes the premise behind proficiency-based education.

“I like the idea that there are clearly defined benchmarks,” he said.

“I like the concept that a student needs to demonstrate understanding of a benchmark before we move them on because it avoids pushing students when they are not ready to be moved on.”

However, Cyr expressed concern about how the system has been implemented and described a “steep learning curve” for teachers and parents when the switch to a 1-4 grading scale happened. Instead of As, Bs and Cs, everyone had to learn how the numbers correlated to performance.

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The way it is used in Lewiston schools, a 4 is given only to a student who goes above and beyond what is taught in school.

“It’s been such a big shift, everyone is trying to figure out what does that mean for achievement?” he said. “What does achievement look like now? What does it mean to be doing well?”

In the old system, an A through a D- got a student some credit, but now all students must get at least a 3 to get credit, he said.

Another problem is that the 1-4 scale may mean different things in different school systems, so there’s a lack of consistency from district to district across the state.

“That’s sort of a window into how this mandate from the state failed,” he said. “They didn’t define what is proficiency. So you just have to do it.”

For Cyr, the state’s role in education should be to develop a common set of standards and let schools do the rest.

“Instead of defining what we should base the diploma on, I think we would be better served by the Department of Education defining a specific set of best practices they expect us to employ in our school systems,” he said.

Mary Paine, director of Strategic Initiatives for the Department of Education, said the original proficiency-based diploma statutory language was enacted in 2012.

“With continuing legislative changes to the proficiency-based diploma over the past six years, combined with leadership and staff changes at the DOE, the rules for the chaptered proficiency-based diploma law have not been completed,” Paine said last week.

She wrote in an email that proposed rules for implementing PBL were released in August 2017 and were under review when the legislative proposals now under scrutiny in the Legislature arose.

“We await the final disposition of the bills under consideration in the Legislature before continuing with rulemaking,” Paine wrote.

WHAT’S NEXT

At the State House, the topic of proficiency-based education surfaced earlier this year when Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, submitted a bill to allow a one-year delay in implementation of the diploma requirement.

During a work session on the bill, Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, tried to introduce an amendment to kill the proficiency-based diploma law entirely. Sampson, a vocal critic of the system, argued that there is no evidence showing it works.

As a result of the pushback by Sampson and others, the Maine Department of Education submitted a bill to remove the mandate that districts base a diploma on proficiency. The department wanted an open process that would include a public hearing and work session, stating in a March 30 notice that it wants the “discussion to be an open dialogue.”

The notice stated the bill would not change anything for school districts using proficiency-based diplomas, if they want to keep the system.

Over the past few weeks, the Legislature’s Education Committee has been grappling with the issue. Last Friday, committee members voted 9-3 to eliminate the requirement that districts issue proficiency-based diplomas; districts could chose either system for granting diplomas.

No work was done on the issue over the weekend or Monday, and many votes remain as the matter is debated by the full Legislature this week, which is close to adjourning.

Adding to the uncertainty is 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.

Staff Writer Steve Collins contributed to this story.

Evan Cyr teaches science at Edward Little High School and is one of many Maine teachers concerned about aspects of the current proficiency-based learning law and its implementation. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

What is PBL?

Hidden behind the “proficiency-based learning” lingo is a simple idea: Students should master the basics in a number of areas — math, science, social studies and more — 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 stifle students and could limit opportunities for some high achievers.

At its most basic, proficiency-based education requires students demonstrate they have mastered a defined set of skills before they can move 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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