Regional School Unit 2 Superintendent William Zima is a strong supporter of his districts proficiency-based learning program. (Photo by Susan Cover for Pine Tree Watch)

For Regional School Unit 2 Superintendent William Zima, the simplest way of describing proficiency-based education is that it provides clear expectations to students, teachers and parents.

If a student does not understand something, he or she is given support to learn it before moving on.

“Proficiency-based, in its simplest form, is just about being transparent,” he said during a recent interview at his Hallowell office. “Telling kids these are my expectations of you, and now I’m going to give you feedback to meet those expectations.”

For example, Zima said, much of what is taught in one math unit builds off what was taught in a previous class. So students who do not understand fractions will be lost when it comes to probability and rates.

“Too often, we just keep moving kids along until they are just buried in that chasm,” he said.

Another way of understanding proficiency-based education, Zima said, is to equate it to how an adult performs in a workplace. He said when you take a new job, you are told what you are supposed to do to get paid. Then, you are evaluated. And if you are not meeting expectations, you are told exactly what you need to do to continue in the position.

The proficiency-based learning system is designed to address gaps before a student is promoted to the next class or grade level. RSU 2 (Dresden, Farmingdale, Hallowell, Monmouth and Richmond) uses a 1-4 grading system now, where 1 means a student cannot independently show they learned the skill; 2 means a student has the “foundational knowledge;” 3 means a student can apply the knowledge to show understanding; and 4 is going beyond what has been asked, Zima said.

Colleges have no trouble with transcripts that reflect this different system, Zima said, saying that one Hall-Dale student recently was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Our transcript does not look significantly different than other transcripts,” he said. “It’s just that you don’t have to satisfy that credit by sitting and getting a certain percentage of what was taught, somewhere between 70 percent and 100 percent of what was taught.”

Zima, a former middle school teacher, said some middle school children already are working on high school classes, a sign that proficiency-based learning is getting more students into advanced classes.

For students who struggle — or one who misses a significant number of school days because of a health issue or family crisis — the proficiency-based learning system allows them to pick up where they left off. And students will not fail an entire class because they blew the final, Zima said, because teachers will work with them to understand what was missed so that they can pass the class.

“Kids were falling through the cracks, and we didn’t really know why they were falling through the cracks because we didn’t know where the cracks were,” he said. “We were teaching chapters of textbooks or giant sections without thinking about what (else is in the book).”

Zima advises school districts new to the concept of proficiency-based learning to be clear about why they are implementing the system. In RSU 2, the reason is to “cultivate hope in all learners.”

“When we say ‘cultivate hope,’ we mean really building the skill set and mindset in kids that gives them that agency of ‘I have the power to make my life better,’” he said. “We need to create the learning opportunities that sets up kids knowing they have that skill set and mindset to succeed.”

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.

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.

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