High School Reform

The future of proficiency-based education

Will a focus on mastering skills take off in Maine, or will schools change their terms without changing their teaching?

Yarmouth High School science teacher Catie Wooten goes over an action plan for a mock press conference with a students at Yarmouth High School on Wednesday, May 31, 2017. The mock press conference was in response to a disease outbreak that students had researched. The research on the disease and the action plan for the mock press conference are part of Wooten’s adoption of the proficiency-based learning plan that Yarmouth High School is slowly developing.

YARMOUTH — Abi Thornton, Olivia Feeley and Jack Romano were considering every angle as they worked through a diagnosis of their patient, Mr. Krabs. The 65-year-old Krabs presented with chest pain and excessive sweating. Those symptoms, combined with his weight and high blood pressure, put him at risk of heart disease.

“We reviewed the patient chart,” Abi said. “He is likely to get [sick].”

The other 16-year-old would-be doctors nodded, then busied themselves with a poster outlining Krabs’ condition. Olivia — Liv to her friends — labeled a detailed drawing of Krabs’ diseased heart, while Abi added a patient summary in perfect print. Jack carefully wrote the names of all three students in the top corner.

“Some of them are healthy,” Liv said, pointing out that other “patients” being diagnosed by her 10th grade biology classmates were in better shape than poor Krabs. She liked the poster project. “It’s good to learn difficult skills. It’s tricky,” she said.

The heart disease project lets students dig in deep and check with each other to make sure they understand all the factors that contribute to heart disease, including patient weight, heart function and blood flow, before they move on. Yarmouth High’s science department decided to add more such projects to the curriculum as part of their new focus on going beyond earning credits to ensuring students master key skills in each course, said science teacher Catie Wooten.

“My sense is that students are getting a better understanding of how science is done,” Wooten said. “And it has helped me with understanding where students are at.”

Known as proficiency-based education, Yarmouth’s recent changes to their curriculum and teaching methods were inspired by the 2012 state law that will require all students to graduate with a proficiency-based diploma, beginning with the Class of 2021.

Part One: How diplomas based on skill acquisition, not credits earned, could change education

The law requires that every district determine standards for proficiency in eight subject areas and then base the awarding of diplomas on student mastery of those subjects. But the exact details of what the state will count as proficiency are unclear, as are the consequences for not hitting that undefined target. The result is that districts are charting their own course. And Yarmouth’s chosen path, a gradual shift rather than a 180-degree turn, may well be the most likely way forward for most of the state.

“We’ve taken a slow and steady approach,” Yarmouth Principal Eric Klein said. “We’re not having to drastically change.”

Yarmouth’s use of traditional teaching methods to answer the primary requirements of Maine’s new law could also prove to be a model for other schools nationally, as more states consider moving to a proficiency-based or competency-based system. Maine and Vermont are the only states that have passed laws requiring schools to make these changes, but the idea is gaining traction elsewhere.

English teacher Deborah Johansen reads from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with students in an English class at Yarmouth High School on Wednesday, May 31, 2017. Johansen, a veteran teacher at the school, has adopted the proficiency-based education ideals but thinks that the method isn’t vastly different from what good teaching has always been.

“There is increasing interest among states to learn more about competency-based education and how to effectively support districts,” said Chris Sturgis, co-founder of CompetencyWorks, a national organization focused on spreading information about competency-based education to K-12 schools. “Some may create learning communities, some may pilot, and some will seek out high-leverage policies such as proficiency-based diplomas.”

Maine took the high-leverage policy route, which has upset some educators here, even those who essentially agree with the ideals of teaching content based on what students already know, providing extra time to struggling students and working to ensure all kids reach mastery — whatever that may mean in a given subject area. In fact, the idea originally came from educators decades ago. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the current changes in Maine are happening because of a state law voted in by legislators, not teachers.

“I think you can understand the hesitancy of veteran teachers,” said Deborah Johansen, who has taught English at Yarmouth High School for 30 years. She explained that she and many of her colleagues had found Maine’s last major education reform to be “just a disaster.” Teachers worked hard to make the required changes, she said. “We thought someone would come down from the state and check. That never happened.”

Part Two: Why Maine’s new high school graduation rules could hurt more than help

Still, Johansen is satisfied with her district’s response to this new law. She feels teachers here were treated as professionals and given autonomy to devise a solution that both met the letter of the law and worked for students.

“Again in Yarmouth, we were able to focus on what we’ve always done to ensure our kids are getting a good education,” Johansen said.

The requirement teachers and administrators here settled on is that each student must earn a score of 80 percent or higher on each of three to five “cornerstones” — tests or projects students use to demonstrate their skills. If students don’t earn an 80 on their cornerstones the first time, they have a chance to re-study the material and take the test or do the project again. Students also have to earn a passing grade for the course, based on the rest of their work.

Designing the new course outlines and the cornerstones that would anchor them took a lot of work, said science teacher Wooten. Using the Next Generation Science Standards, a national framework for teaching science that focuses more on the scientific process than on memorizing content, as a guide, she and her colleagues spent hours together identifying the key skills and standards they wanted students to master in each subject area. (Yarmouth grants teachers time for meetings with their subject area teams at least every other week.) They then worked together to create cornerstone projects, both exams and labs, for each science course to ensure that all students meet the same expectations, no matter which teacher they are assigned.

Jack Romano looks over his action plan for a mock press conference he is organizing with a group of other students in a science class at Yarmouth High School on Wednesday, May 31, 2017. The mock press conference was in response for a disease outbreak that students had researched. The reaserach on the disease and the action plan they developed for the mock press conference are part of the school’s adoption of proficiency-based learning. Romano says he thinks the ability to retake tests under the proficiency-based model is worthwhile. “If you misunderstand one thing, you keep misunderstanding,” he says.

Yarmouth is a wealthy town with driven students. For many here, success in school is paramount. But multiple students interviewed said there was no shame in not passing a cornerstone. In fact, they felt it was only fair to be given the chance to re-do work they didn’t master on the first try.

“If you misunderstand one thing, you keep misunderstanding,” Jack pointed out. Earlier this year he didn’t pass a biology cornerstone that required him to write an analysis of enzymes. He had to go back and re-study the topic and retake the test. He isn’t grumbling about the extra work though. “It definitely solidifies anything you’re not sure of,” Jack said. “I used what I already knew and added the rest.”

Some proficiency-based education proponents would say this kind of solution is in keeping with the spirit of proficiency-based education. It provides more latitude to students who need extra time to master a skill, although it isn’t truly self-paced. Students still must show up to class on a typical high school schedule. And while not every cornerstone is a test, students aren’t offered a menu of ways to prove their mastery — they must complete the cornerstone they’ve been assigned, be it an essay, an exam, or something more interactive.

“To try to do competency-based education without the personalization doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Sturgis, of CompetencyWorks, said. “How are you going to help each kid be successful unless you actually meet them where they are?”

But others, especially educators in Maine, think a measured approach is a good idea. Overhauling high school is no small task, said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union.

“I anticipate that it might be difficult in the first few years and I don’t mean to say it’s not going to work,” Kilby-Chesley said. “This is going to be an experiment, and I think in the first few years there has to be some flexibility in it so we can help those kids reach their diploma.”

This is the third story in a short series exploring Maine’s new graduation requirements. The second story took a deeper look at the philosophical and logistical problems raised by proficiency-based education; the first story explored the history of the system and introduced readers to an unlikely school that has taken the idea and run with it.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about high school reform.

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Lillian Mongeau

Lillian Mongeau is the Engagement Editor and West Coast Bureau Chief. Her future as a writer was not a forgone conclusion, according to her first… See Archive

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