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Personalized learning lets Champlain Valley Union High School sophomore Bella Curtis study toward a certificate in horse management. Credit: Austin Haeberle

NASHVILLE, Tenn.The already converted policymakers, school leaders and teachers ready to transform traditional schooling came to this annual conference last week from around the world to share a common refrain: Out with the old.

New ways of teaching and learning are needed to make sure students prove they’ve mastered topics before earning a diploma, they say. No more simply “sitting on your butt in class,” as one educator put it.

“Why are we so stuck in an age-based, grade-based era? We have to engage in a movement,” Susan Patrick, CEO of the nonprofit advocacy group known as iNACOL (International Association for K-12 Online Learning), told the cheering crowd of 3,000 true believers.

Well, there is something of a movement, despite an array of challenges. Dozens of states, according to iNACOL research, are in different stages of promoting new so-called “competency-based education” models that replace traditional “seat time,” spent in classrooms with “student centered” learning,” aimed at having students prove that they’ve mastered skills before simply moving on from grade to grade.

Related: A school where you can’t fail, it just takes you longer to learn

And the conference featured plenty of students who say this transformation of learning is changing their lives, including an impossibly articulate fourth-grader who said he created his own skateboard company and began loving school once he was allowed to learn at his own pace.

Just 48 percent of Maine’s 11th– graders and only about 32 percent of economically disadvantaged students were proficient in reading and math.

And yet. Let’s take a step back and consider the different narrative emerging some 1,200 miles away, near Portland, Maine, where there’s been major pushback against some of the very same new models of learning that iNACOL advocates.

Six years ago, this New England state known for lobsters and pine trees became one of the first states to pass a law requiring that students master a set of specific skills in eight different learning areas before being awarded a high school diploma.

The law let Maine schools determine their own grading systems, but many high schools switched from an A through F system to using numbers from one to four to indicate “proficiency” in mastering standards. Along with objections to that, many complaints arose that the state provided no clear guidelines for the transition.

Related: Documenting Maine’s failure to implement proficiency-based learning

Challenges emerged in Lewiston, Auburn and York, along with an uprising resulting in a no confidence vote in the superintendent in Scarborough and a recall of three school board members there who had supported changing the start time of school and abolishing letter grades. More than a thousand parents have joined a Facebook group called Mainers Concerned About Proficiency Based Learning.

In a nutshell, here’s some of what the Mainers have been saying: Stop shoving new ways of education down our throats. Give students more of a say, and let them keep traditional letter grades, instead of replacing them with numbers from one to four that rate how they are meeting the so-called competencies.

Students protesting. Credit: Getty Images

The state has already retreated and has now eliminated the proficiency requirements in diplomas, but some schools there have yet to bring back letter grades, and that’s not sitting well. In Deering, students who want them back even walked out of school a few weeks ago — with support of their principal.

“This walkout is just the beginning,” Ragan Toppan, a student at Deering High, wrote in a Hechinger Report op-ed last week.

Related: How diplomas based on skill acquisition not credits earned could change education

Maine’s shift to new graduation requirements had come about in part as a potential solution to a problem: Just 48 percent of all 11th-graders and only about 32 percent of economically disadvantaged students were proficient in reading and math, according to a 2016 report from Educate Maine, a business-led education advocacy group.

Other New England states, including Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island are having more success with new ways of learning, using different names for it.

That’s why the pushback came as something of a surprise. Even in Maine, “the opposition was a coalition of far right and far left that came together,” David Ruff, a former Maine teacher and the executive director of Great Schools Partnership, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on bringing proficiency-based learning strategies into New England schools, said during the iNACOL conference.

At a time of deep political divisions in this country, our sprawling education system also remains beset by disagreements in both federal and state education policies, and local school systems may differ widely on if – and how ­– they want to change methods of learning and high school graduation requirements.

Some are simply suspicious of change: Philanthropy-backed education reforms have in the past angered and confused parents and teachers. We’ve been down this road before. Remember the pushback against Common Core standards, teacher effectiveness and tying teacher pay to student performance?

Philanthropy is also one of the forces behind competency-based education. Funders of iNACOL include the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which are among the various funders of The Hechinger Report).

In a nutshell, here’s some of the things the Mainers have been saying: Stop shoving new ways of education down our throats. Give students more of a say, and let them keep letter grades instead of replacing them with numbers from one to four that rate how they are meeting competencies.

No matter who is behind the ideas, the call from nonpartisan leaders at iNACOL for more “committed and forward-thinking educators and administrators” to tailor learning towards individual students and their needs can’t succeed without close attention to the obstacles in the way.

And a major obstacle is the way these ideas are being articulated and explained by those pushing them. For example, why are the new ways of learning better? What does the research say? Will this help our kids in college, careers and beyond? How? And what do the new terms mean, for real life?

It would help to avoid vague rhetoric like “meeting students where they are,” or “educating the whole child,” along with the cliché about how education has not changed since a time-bound factory model failed our children.

Related: Edu-peak is a disease that threatens to undermine U.S. education

In Nashville, I heard lots of specific and spot-on advice for promoting change – like focusing on early grades first, creating a convincing “elevator pitch” and starting with teachers and classrooms.

Yet I also tried to imagine skeptical parents and students (even though they were not the intended audience) sitting in on iNACOL sessions such as “Redesigning learning to foster student agency through rigor and relevance,” or “The sweet spot on scaffolding.”

I came away convinced, once again, that educators themselves often neglect to clearly translate the unwieldy language of change. Terms like competency-based, mastery-based, personalized and proficiency-based learning are both off-putting and baffling.

Changing and shifting ways of thinking about education and the policies that come with change has always been difficult. But preaching to the already converted at insider conferences is only one way to help the so-called movement that iNACOL is calling for.

More needs to be done to help recalcitrant parents in Maine, and in the many other states that are pushing similar ideas with different names, understand what the change is all about – and why it matters.

This story about new approaches to learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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  1. I take exception to your statement that Vermont is having more success with PBL. There is no evidence of success in Vermont and many parents and students here in Vermont hate PBL and more specifically the proficiency grades. In fact there is no evidence from any source that PBL can improve student outcomes! Nellie Mae is helping administrators to run roughshod over parents and students to implement PBL. Here in Stowe, VT a student led survey of high school students receiving proficiency grades showed that almost 60% dislike or hate the new grading system. Furthermore, almost 60% of those students are not motivated under the new proficiency system.

  2. Last week in Maine, nearly 70% of school board delegates to the Maine School Boards Association Annual Meeting rejected a resolution to support “the ongoing work toward the implementation of proficiency-based diploma systems in Maine schools.” This is not, as quoted above, “a coalition of far right and far left that came together,” but the opposite. Many school boards have listened to teachers, parents, and children and determined that the PBL/PBE/PBD initiative is flawed at best, has no research supporting it, and has disrupted educational progress in the state for over 6 years. Enough is enough. For those who wish to continue, best of luck to you, but don’t continue to drag down the rest of us in the state or hold up our spotty results to other states who are heading down the same path.

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