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proficiency based learning
Ragan Toppan, a junior at Deering High School, took part in a walkout last fall to protest a change in the school’s grading policy. Credit: Kelly Field, for The Hechinger Report

This past fall, Ragan Toppan, 16, walked out of her Algebra II class at Deering High School to protest her school’s recent switch to standards-based grading.

Toppan, a junior at the high school, was angry that the administration hadn’t sought student input about the change, and worried that a switch to a 1-4 grading system, with a 3 the highest possible grade on some assignments, would hurt her chances of getting into a good college. On her transcript, those 3s, which signify proficiency in a standard, would appear as 85s, or B’s.

“I shoot for A’s on all my work, but a lot of teachers don’t give you an option to go ‘above and beyond’ ” and get a 4, she said in an interview. “An 85 is not going to cut it for college.”

Her mother, a longtime English teacher at Deering, sees things a little differently. Kathryn Toppan switched to a 1-4 scale even before the administration required it, finding it “less arbitrary” than the traditional 1-100. “It’s easier to communicate to students where they’re at and what they need to do to improve,” she said.

She sympathizes with students, like her daughter, who have seen their high school careers disrupted by change. But she believes there is no other way. “Sometimes it doesn’t seem fair, but there’s sort of a greater good,” she said.

Seven years after the state passed a law that required Maine’s high schools to award diplomas on the basis of demonstrated “proficiency” in eight key areas, and nine months after the legislature repealed that mandate, the debate over proficiency-based diplomas continues to divide districts, teachers and families here, even as the concept spreads to other schools and states.

In a recent survey of the state’s superintendents conducted by the University of Southern Maine, roughly a quarter of respondents said they planned to stick with a proficiency-based diploma, even though the law no longer requires it. Thirty-eight percent said they would likely return to awarding diplomas based on the accumulation of credit hours. Another quarter preferred “hybrid” approaches, and 11 percent said it was too soon to speculate.

“No other state has embraced this model for all their school systems. We’re not ready for this.”

The only thing most everyone agrees on is this: The rollout of the 2012 law, LD 1422, was a disaster, plagued by insufficient funding and inadequate guidance from the top. While the state’s Department of Education cycled through commissioners (six in six years), superintendents struggled to figure out the law, largely on their own.

The result today is a patchwork of local policies, with pockets of proficiency-based grading surrounded by schools that have stuck with traditional methods of evaluating students — or reverted to them recently. Districts have spent thousands of dollars on consultants and software upgrades, and the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps that the law was supposed to help eliminate remain largely unchanged.

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

Now, as a new governor and legislature grapple with these gaps, many parents and educators are left asking: How did Maine get into this mess?

To answer that question, The Hechinger Report combed through grant databases, legislative records and lobbying disclosures, looking for the forces and funding behind LD 1422. We spoke with more than two dozen lawmakers, foundation heads, business leaders and educators about the bill.

The story that emerged is a complicated one, spanning more than two decades and reaching across the country to a remote district in Alaska that became a model for Maine.

At its heart, though, it’s a familiar tale in American school reform — the story of how a small band of well-intentioned education and business leaders, backed by wealthy foundations and armed with optimism and a few early success stories, sold state lawmakers on a largely untested theory of change.

Imported from Alaska

Proficiency-based education is a wonky term, but in essence it means that students master certain skills before they move up a grade or graduate. The amount of time they’ve spent in the classroom (“seat time”) doesn’t matter, nor does the number of credits they’ve accumulated.

proficiency based learning
Deering High School, one of the largest in the state of Maine, is in the midst of a controversial transition to proficiency-based diplomas. Credit: Kelly Field, for The Hechinger Report

In theory, proficiency-based models let students learn at their own pace, speeding up if they grasp a concept quickly, and getting extra help if they struggle. In practice, though, it can take many different forms, including independent study, learning communities and online programs. It doesn’t always include changes to grading — and indeed, Maine’s law didn’t require any.

To supporters like former state senator Brian Langley, a longtime culinary arts instructor and the sponsor of the now-repealed LD 1422, proficiency-based diplomas are a way to ensure that all kids graduate with the skills they’ll need to succeed in a changing economy.

“It’s about equity,” he said. The law “was bringing a voice to the kids who don’t have helicopter parents, so when they left high school, their diplomas would mean something.”

Maine’s march toward a proficiency-law began in 1997, with the adoption of the Maine Learning Results, which set statewide standards in eight content areas. It accelerated a couple of years later, when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation began pouring millions of dollars into high school reform and the creation of small schools. (The Gates Foundation is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

In 2000, Tom Vander Ark, the first executive director of Gates’ education program, heard about Chugach, a district in Alaska that had seen dramatic gains in test scores after switching to a proficiency-based model, and he decided to visit.

There, in tiny schools reachable only by plane, Vander Ark spoke with students who “could tell you exactly what they were learning, why it was important, and what they had to do to move to the next level in each subject,” he said in an interview. Each student had a little bar chart on their desk that tracked their progress toward mastery in each standard.

“I was fascinated by it,” he said. “I had never seen kids so in charge of their learning.”

Related: What if personalized learning was less about me and more about us?

When he returned to Seattle, Vander Ark gave the Alaska Council of School Administrators $5 million to bring the Chugach district’s model to six other Alaska districts.

The next year, Chugach, with its 214 students spread across 22,000 square miles of glaciers, mountains, islands and wilderness, won the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality award. The federal award brought national attention to the district, which created a nonprofit, the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, to take its approach nationwide. The group’s acronym, RISC, was deliberate, according to a book by its creators, “Delivering on the Promise.” Schools and districts that adopted the model “would take risks in transitioning to a system fundamentally distinct from the one that was deeply ingrained in U.S. culture.”

In 2003, the Gates Foundation gave RISC $5.8 million to train additional Alaska school districts and to create a research and development program.

“The mission was to hit the tipping point to transform the education system,” said Richard DeLorenzo, the former superintendent who created RISC. “That was my vision.”

$13 million in outside philanthropic funding supported two Maine districts’ efforts to implement proficiency-based education

The first converts were Adams County School District 50, in the Denver suburbs, and the Lindsay Unified School District, in California, he recalls. Like the Chugach district, they had high percentages of low-income students, though they were much larger districts than Chugach, with more than 10,000 and 4,000 students, respectively.

Meanwhile, in Maine, a handful of districts were experimenting with similar methods. Among them were RSU 2, a far-flung district in central Maine which includes the towns of Hallowell and Monmouth; MSAD 15, a district midway between Portland and Lewiston; and RSU 20, which includes the small coastal community of Searsport. Searsport had started transitioning to a standards-based diploma in 2002, after receiving a share of a $10-million school reform grant that Gates had made to the Sen. George J. Mitchell Scholarship Research Institute, an organization that gives out scholarships to Maine students.

In 2007, Maine’s then-commissioner, Susan Gendron, invited DeLorenzo to speak at a summer conference for superintendents in Bar Harbor. At the end of the conference, she took a survey: 80 percent of attendees said they supported the RISC philosophy, but only a quarter said they were ready to make the leap, she said in an interview.

To encourage them along, the state offered schools $50,000 grants to subsidize RISC training, Gendron recalled. DeLorenzo screened the candidates, assessing their capacity for change, and six districts were approved, among them the three districts mentioned above that had already begun experimenting with the model.

When the state withdrew its financial support for the training a year and a half in, citing budget shortfalls, the districts formed a consortium to pool their resources: The Maine Cohort for Customized Learning. One of the first things the new nonprofit did was hire Beatrice McGarvey, from Marzano Research, a consulting organization that offers professional development to schools across the country, to craft a common curriculum, said Linda Laughlin, now the Maine group’s executive director.

At least one of the early pioneers, RSU 18, which includes the small town of Oakland, has since backed away from a standards-based diploma. But one district has been steadfast in its commitment, staying the course through three superintendents: RSU 2.

A local success story

In a math classroom inside Monmouth Academy in the RSU 2 district, 20 students, ranging from freshmen to seniors, sat in clusters of four, working independently on small dry erase boards. Some were still studying geometry, others had advanced to Algebra II. One group was just starting on probability.

proficiency based learning
Elizabeth Ross, a math teacher at Monmouth Academy, explains a chart that shows which standards students have met. Credit: Kelly Field, for The Hechinger Report

Elizabeth Ross, a ninth-year teacher in the district, buzzed between them, stopping to show two juniors, Violette Beaulieu and Hannah Levesque, how a parabola can dip from positive to negative.

When they understood the concept, Ross moved on, giving another group a lesson in operations with square roots. Then she moved on again.

After an hour of shuttling between students, Ross was sweaty and flushed, the carton of yogurt on her desk only half eaten. It’s hard work differentiating curriculum for so many students, but Ross believes it’s worth it.

“I feel like they learn more,” she said. “When I give them a test, they have to know all of it” to earn a 3 and be deemed proficient. “Not just 70 percent.”

On the wall, there was a chart with stickers showing which standards students had met. Shading in the boxes indicated a higher level of competence — half-shaded was a 3.5 and fully shaded was a 4. The students had requested the shading, to show more nuance in the scores, Ross said.

Levesque, who wants to go to either St. Joseph’s or Thomas College and become a realtor, strives for all 4s, often requesting extra work to get to that level. But Beaulieu, who hopes to attend the University of Maine Farmington and become a preschool teacher, said she’s content with a “solid 3.”

Both said they like the individualized instruction that they get from teachers like Ross, and appreciate the opportunity to retake exams if they have a bad day. They worry, though, how they’ll fare in college, where professors are less forgiving, and there’s thousands of dollars in tuition at stake.

“Here, if I get something wrong, I’ll be able to go back and fix it. In college, you can’t,” said Beaulieu. “That kind of freaks me out.”

Related: The future of proficiency-based education

RSU 2 is often held up as a standards-based success story. Nearly a decade in, the culture of competence is deeply ingrained in the district; most of today’s high schoolers have never experienced anything different.

Getting to this point wasn’t easy, though. When Hallowell tried to extend proficiency-based education to its high school in 2008, parents put up a fight, saying the change would make it harder for their children to compete for scholarships and admission to selective schools, according to a case study published by the state Department of Education.

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The state ramps up

Meanwhile, the momentum — and the spending — for reform was continuing to build. In 2009, Gates gave half a million dollars to the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which describes itself as New England’s largest education-focused philanthropy, to lead a four-state effort to remake the region’s schools. (Nellie Mae is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.) Nellie Mae passed on the money to the Portland-based Great Schools Partnership, which used it to coordinate The New England Secondary School Consortium, a coalition advocating for proficiency-based diplomas, among other things.

The following year, Gates gave Nellie Mae an additional $1.75 million to identify and fund “proficiency-based pathways.” Some of that money trickled down to MSAD 15 and the Casco Bay High School for Expeditionary Learning, in Portland, which had been created five years earlier using a grant from The Gates Foundation. At Casco Bay, the money would be used to create a “roadmap” for other districts and Portland’s two other high schools to follow, according to a 2012 report on the initiative.

Nellie Mae, which had $430 million in assets at the end of 2009, began investing its own money in Maine, too. In 2010, it gave $200,000 each to Portland and two other districts to develop plans for “district level system change” focused on “student-centered approaches,” including proficiency-based education.

At the end of the following year, it awarded organizations in Portland and Sanford nearly $9 million to implement their plans. To build public support for the changes, the foundation also gave smaller grants to youth and immigrant advocacy groups in the districts.

The foundation ultimately gave a combined $13 million to the two districts, with roughly two-thirds of it going to Portland, according to a Nellie Mae spokesperson.

In its application for its 2011 grant, Portland pledged to move the entire district to a proficiency-based diploma. When the grants were announced, Nicholas Donohue, the foundation’s president, said the districts were chosen because they were already “most aligned with our theory of change.”

But some Portland parents were wary of the award. Anna Collins, a Portland mother and attorney, said she saw the grants as an attempt to build support for LD 1422, which had just been approved by the state legislature’s education committee and would soon be debated by the whole legislature.

“They can say ‘We’ve got some of the biggest districts in the state on board, you have to pass this,’” she told the Bangor Daily News at the time.

Nellie Mae was supporting the proposed law. A few months before it made the grants to Portland and Sanford, the foundation gave the first of three grants to the Maine Department of Education to create an online Center for Best Practice, with case studies of districts that had embraced proficiency-based learning.

That same month, it awarded $50,000 to the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education, a business group now part of Educate Maine, to support its “political/legislative work.” The coalition, which had drafted an omnibus education reform bill that was ultimately whittled down to LD 1422, used the funds to host a retreat for members of the education committee shortly before the legislature voted on the bill. The lawmakers visited a proficiency-based school in Oakland and attended a policy forum in Freeport.

Just before the vote on LD 1422 in early April 2012, Educate Maine and Great Schools Partnership circulated a letter to committee members with the signatures of nearly 50 principals and superintendents who supported the bill.

Ed Cervone, the executive director of Educate Maine, said LD 1422 was an attempt to bring accountability to the Maine Learning Results, which the state had passed 15 years earlier, but never adequately enforced.

“This wasn’t some radical new pathway,” he said. “We were looking at finishing the pathway put off by governors prior.”

Guinea Pigs

When the legislature debated the bill, lawmakers who represented communities in RSU 2 spoke against it, citing complaints they’d received from parents and students in their district. They urged lawmakers to slow down and let districts decide whether to implement proficiency-based diplomas on their own.

“No other state has embraced this model for all their school systems,” warned Sen. Earle McCormick, a former teacher who represented part of RSU 2. “We’re not ready for this.”

The heavy involvement of unelected, out-of-state foundations in advancing proficiency-based diplomas stoked suspicion and resentment among some Maine parents and teachers. They created a Facebook Group called “Mainers Concerned About Proficiency Based Learning,” where they shared lobbying reports, grant details and consulting contracts, and swapped horror stories and conspiracy theories. The group remains active today, with 1,500 members.

“Have you found a grassroots movement pushing for this?”

“We are guinea pigs for a new, experimental method of teaching and learning that has been designed to benefit content providers rather than students,” wrote Emily Talmage, a fourth-grade teacher in Lewiston in a 2015 post detailing spending by Nellie Mae.

That view is shared by policymakers like Rep. Heidi Sampson, who led the push to overturn the law. In an interview, she said the law was created to “pad the wallets” of consultants like Great Schools Partnership, which offers coaching to districts.

Great Schools Partnership, which charges schools and districts between $24,000 and $84,000 for its services (depending on the number of coaching days), did see an uptick in contracts after the mandate passed, from 18 to 25, and a decline back to 18 after the law was repealed, according to data provide by Ian Bassingthwaighte, a spokesman. It also won a $200,000 contract from the state to create free standards-based tools for schools. But the law was hardly a bonanza for the nonprofit, and Bassingthwaighte said it’s not in it for the money.

“We are former teachers, principals and superintendents who are dedicated to our mission of ensuring high quality learning for each student,” he said.

(Great Schools has received continued support from Nellie Mae; the foundation gave it several million dollars to administer the New England Secondary School Consortium and to run a program aimed at building “public understanding and demand” for reform across the region, including in three Maine communities.)

Charlie Toulmin, Nellie Mae’s policy director, insists his foundation wasn’t the driving force behind the law.

“They were already walking down this path, and they and us sort of found a match in our interests,” he said.

Staying the course in Portland

Portland’s district leadership has said it plans “to stay the course with its transition to a proficiency-based diploma,” regardless of changes in the law.

proficiency based learning
The entrance to Portland’s Deering High School, the most diverse high school north of Boston. Nearly half the enrollees are students of color. Credit: Kelly Field, for The Hechinger Report

In the city’s two traditional high schools — Deering and Portland High School — classes look, and sound, much as they did prior to 2012. The only signs that things have changed are posters that hang in some classrooms, enumerating the standards and proficiency levels.

Most of the ongoing change is happening behind the scenes, in departmental meetings where teachers hash out graduation requirements, and in online gradebooks, where teachers spend hours assigning standards to assignments, and rating students on levels of proficiency. It’s a ton of data entry, but none of it has appeared on students’ report cards, which still include traditional numerical grades.

That frustrates teachers like Ericka Lee-Winship, who would “much rather spend time planning exciting lessons than sitting at my computer clicking buttons.”

Lee-Winship, who has taught social studies at Portland High School for 21 years, thinks the Great Schools Partnership coaches her school has hired are smart and mean well, but are out of touch with the realities of the profession.

“They want teachers to think big picture, but every day I’m expected to manage the details,” she said. “When I go home, I have a huge bag of homework to grade. I’m not sitting around pondering the big picture questions.”

She believes the state’s shift to proficiency-based diplomas was driven “100 percent” by foundations and interest groups.

“Have you found a grassroots movement pushing for this?” she asked.

Beth Arsenault, who has taught in Portland High School since 1996, has practiced many of the habits of proficiency-based learning for years — letting students retake tests and keeping her grade book open, for example. In her alternative education classes for at-risk students, the mantra is “you’re not passing yet.”

So she’s not philosophically opposed to proficiency-based education; she just doesn’t like it being imposed on teachers by outsiders. And, like Lee-Winship, she finds the data entry meaningless.

“Trust me, professionally, that I’m teaching to the standard,” she said.

With neighboring districts backing away from proficiency-based diplomas — including those centered in Scarborough and South Portland — many teachers here hope theirs will be the next to fall.

Ragan Toppan, now 17, is among the students who do, too. She was pleased in January when Deering took a small step backward, giving teachers the option of grading using either a 1-4 or 60-100 scale. But the compromise has the potential to complicate transcripts, and thus the college application process, for students like her: “We can’t forget that kids are planning for their futures. This may be a test run for the administration, but these are real lives, real students.”

“I shoot for A’s on all my work, but a lot of teachers don’t give you an option to go ‘above and beyond.’ An 85 is not going to cut it for college.”

Her mom, Kathryn, remains committed to the 1-4 grading system. But even she says it would be “premature” to switch to a proficiency-based diploma before ironing out the kinks around remediation and grading.

In the meantime, Deering’s teachers have agreed to award up to a 4 on all assignments that use the 1-4 scale, according to Principal Gregg Palmer. He said he didn’t think many teachers limited students to 3s before, but “I can’t say it never happened.”

And what about the Alaska-based group that brought its model to Maine? DeLorenzo, who created RISC, lost his passion for the business, and was running a fly-fishing business when he got a call from a Russian friend who asked him to come create schools there. They’re up to five now. He believes the “hierarchal, compliance-driven culture” of Russia is more conducive to system change than the U.S.’s locally controlled one. “I never had the leverage to flip American schools, to get CEOs behind me. That’s why I’m in Russia,” he said.

RISC, meantime, was acquired by Marzano Research and is no longer offering trainings. Marzano, which helped Maine’s pioneers in proficiency develop their curriculum, is creating a series of proficiency-based student “academies” with help from RSU 2 superintendent Bill Zima, who is leaving at the end of the school year to join the company. So far, none of the academies are in Maine.

Chugach has stuck with its proficiency-based diploma, but test scores have dropped, from the top quartile of the state to roughly the middle, according to current superintendent Mike Hanley. Nearly all of the schools in Alaska that copied its model have since abandoned it. Bob Crumley, the superintendent who put it in place, thinks they got complacent.

“Over time, it didn’t seem as urgent,” he said. “The initial adrenalin and drive kind of waned.”

Nellie Mae, meanwhile, is re-thinking its grant-making strategy, acknowledging that some of its investments in “student-centered learning” haven’t had as big an impact on low-income students and communities of color as the foundation had hoped. Going forward, the foundation will “put much more attention on racial equity” and be more open to grant proposals that don’t involve student-centered practices, Nellie Mae’s Toulmin said.

In RSU 2, there’s less pushback to proficiency than their used to be. But some parents and teachers still worry about the lack of consequences for slacking. Deadlines here are flexible, and students know they can retake tests if they don’t feel like studying one night.

“There’s no motivation because there’s no deadlines,” said Jennifer Heidrich, the mother of a Monmouth middle schooler who teaches in another district. “His attitude is he shouldn’t have to do work outside school. Coming from a teacher’s kid — you can imagine the fights we get into.”

School leaders acknowledge this challenge, and have begun requiring students to rate their “habits of work,” each Friday. Teachers review the scores and can change them if they disagree. If a student’s “habits of work” are poor, they can lose junior or senior privileges. But there are still no consequences for underclassmen, and the score doesn’t affect a student’s grade.

“It doesn’t have teeth,” said Christine Arsenault, a longtime English teacher and supporter of proficiency-based learning. “That’s the biggest downfall.”

This story about proficiency based learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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