The Four Biggest Challenges to Implementing Maine’s Proficiency-Based Diploma

June 28, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at EdSurge on May 30, 2017.

Maine has long been an innovator in education, stemming back to the Maine Learning Technology Initiative. Now all eyes are on our corner of the country as we transition from a traditional seat-time high school diploma to a proficiency-based diploma.

Historically, Maine has spurred national, paradigm-shifting discussions about how we “do school.” We have pushed many state districts to make significant policy changes that align with instructional and educational best practices, and have encouraged teachers, administrators, and districts to innovate educational systems design. I believe the new proficiency-based diploma requirements are yet another beacon of educational leadership and innovation, one that will alter our education system in meaningful and lasting ways.

But what exactly are these new kinds of diplomas, and just how difficult a transition do they pose to educators?

First, the basics. In 2012, Maine passed a law requiring that by 2018 all students would graduate with a proficiency-based diploma; the law then went through a major update in 2015-2016. The Maine DOE defines proficiency-based education as an academic assessment approach that requires students to demonstrate mastery of certain skills before they progress to the next lesson, get promoted to the next grade level, or receive a diploma. You can find the official definition here.

To me, proficiency-based education is about drawing lines in the sand of learning. It’s about recognizing that, if traveling to Boston, you don’t say you’re in Boston until you’re in Boston. It’s about knowing who you are, what you know, and what you can do. And, most importantly, where to go next.

There are many challenges facing districts, schools, teachers, students, and communities in this shift to a proficiency-based system of learning. Below are the four I believe loom largest: (more…)

Maine: Making the Most of High-Leverage Strategies

February 20, 2017 by

This is the thirteenth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

Maine Definition of Proficiency-Based Education
Any system of academic instruction, assessment, grading, and reporting that is based on students demonstrating mastery of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn before they progress to the next lesson, get promoted to the next grade level, or receive a diploma.

 

MaineMaine’s journey to a proficiency-based diploma can best be described as a bottom-up and top-down process. In 2007 and 2008, districts in Maine began the journey to personalized, proficiency-based systems. First, the Department of Education began to partner with the Reinventing Schools Coalition (RISC), now part of Marzano Research Labs, to provide training to districts on how to engage communities in creating shared vision, help teachers learn how to create the culture and practices for personalized learning, and convert to proficiency-based systems. The DOE then provided limited funding to those districts interested in creating more personalized learning experiences to continue ideas outlined by the RISC. When this funding was discontinued, vested districts created a professional community of learners, the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning.

With extensive district collaboration, the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning became a catalyst for personalized, proficiency-based learning in Maine. The MCCL districts played a powerful role as proof points when the Department of Education organized a statewide listening tour, followed thereafter by legislative tours that launched state-level conversations and informed the strategic plan Education Evolving. The result was the passage of LD1422, An Act To Prepare Maine People for the Future Economy by the state legislature in 2012.

LD1422 requires a standards-based education system that enables multiple pathways for pursuing and demonstrating learning, leading up to a proficiency-based diploma. It also requires the Department of Education to provide specific types of support and technical assistance to districts. The standards-based system is organized around the Maine Learning Results, established in 1997 and upgraded in 2011. Maine’s proficiency-based diploma policy requires students to be proficient in eight content areas – Career & Education Development, English Language Arts, Health Education & Physical Education, Mathematics, Science & Technology, Social Studies, Visual & Performing Arts, and World Languages – as well as the five cross-disciplinary Guiding Principles. (more…)

Proficiency is for Hope

February 3, 2017 by

PathwayI recently found myself discussing the latest round of State test scores with a group of Maine superintendents. There was concern that we are not realizing the overwhelming success we had wished for when we began the march to proficiency-based education. As a result, they want to leave proficiency-based grading and return to traditional grading and reporting. I wonder, does how we report student progress truly have an impact on Standardized test scores?

What we are trying to create in a true learner-centered or personalized school is not improvement on a snapshot of academic achievement. We want young people to see a future they desire and persevere to make it real regardless of the obstacles that lay ahead of them. We want a world of thinkers and not simply knowers. Learners who know life’s pathways all have struggles, but see them as mounds to get over or go around. We want students to have hope. The research is clear, the level of hope a student has is a far better predictor of future success in college and life than aptitude or achievement scores. I argue that you cannot get there unless you have clear learning expectations and success criteria. Those bones come from being proficiency-based.

How can schools have a positive impact on a student’s perception of what lies ahead? The answer might be found in a definition created using the brilliant work of Shane Lopez in Making Hope Happen. Shane reports that hope has three core competencies: goals, pathways, and agency. Hopeful people believe the future will be better than the present and they have the power to make it so. Also, people with hope are aware that there are many pathways to their goals and none of them is free of obstacles. A school system that is truly learner-centered, competency-based can help create the goals, agency, and pathways that build students’ hope. (more…)

On Scaling Competency Education: Equity, Quality, and Sustainability

February 1, 2017 by

This is the tenth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

The early lesson from New England is that the scaling strategies for competency-based education require a combination of schools and districts that have the courageous leadership to convert to competency education and state leadership willing to commit to goal-oriented policies supported by long-term capacity-building strategies. Again, over time and as more states move forward, we are likely to learn about where there might be additional issues that need to be addressed. In particular, districts and states need to consider equity, quality, and sustainability.

Equity

amy-allen-quoteEven though equity resides at the very heart of competency-based education, it still requires an unrelenting commitment to challenge institutional patterns, individual bias that creates lower expectations, and strong management practices that can lead to much greater responsiveness. The focus on equity should be found in the accountability designs within school, district, and state systems and processes as well as the schoolwide instructional philosophies and strategies.

Although states are trying to increase responsiveness through embedding expectations that schools and educators respond to student needs, conversations with educators across New England suggest that courageous leadership is still needed. Under the pressure of the end-of-year accountability exams, too many schools and educators, even in the most developed competency-based districts, are still providing grade-level curriculum to students even if they have already learned the content or are lacking the prerequisite skills. In addition to leadership, we will need to engage a broad range of expertise, both practitioner and leadership, to identify the best ways to help students fill skill gaps without falling back into the trap of tracking.

Quality

The field is currently challenged by not having enough research and evaluation on the quality indicators for competency-based districts and schools to determine the elements that will lead to a high-quality model or effective implementation. This task is further complicated by what might be called waves of innovation that take place once districts become competency-based: As educators and schools become more intentional about what they want students to know and be able to do, there are efforts to build assessment literacy; build the capacity for performance assessments to support the development of higher order skills; develop stronger instructional strategies based on learning progressions; introduce practices that support student agency, voice, and choice; integrate more personalized learning practices; and introduce digital tools and online learning. Thus, schools and districts are taking different paths with different sequencing as they build the full range of capacities needed to operate a high-quality competency-based system. (more…)

We Have a Proficiency-Based Diploma. Now What?

January 27, 2017 by

This is the ninth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

rihs-diplomaThe trust in the conventional education system has been undermined by the tradition of awarding diplomas to students who do not possess the skills needed for college and careers. It has been possible in many districts to receive a diploma even though students are still reading at the elementary school level. In order to eliminate this practice of passing students on without the necessary skills, states are introducing policies that set the expectation that students will demonstrate proficiency at an agreed upon performance level in order to receive a diploma (i.e., a proficiency-based diploma).

The proficiency-based graduation policies developed in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont appear to be high-leverage in terms of engaging districts; however, the diploma policy cannot stand alone. It is one thing to say that a diploma must be proficiency-based and an entirely different thing to create a system that will ensure students are making progress toward a diploma throughout each year of school. Even with proficiency-based diploma policies, states will find that they need to take additional steps to fully engage and support districts in ensuring that students can actually reach graduation-level proficiency.

First, there must be a strategy to engage all the districts beyond the coalition of the willing. For example, until Maine engaged districts through a self-assessment of their progress in implementation and offered flexibility in setting their own deadlines within state guidelines, there were many that had not yet demonstrated a commitment to change. Second, states may want to expedite the process by helping districts understand the elements of personalized, competency-based systems and/or the implementation process. Maine provided training opportunities early on and Vermont has complemented their policy with training for supervisory unions. Rhode Island used a more prescriptive approach in requiring secondary schools to implement a set of practices. (more…)

Putting the Pieces Together to Build a Competency-Based Statewide System

January 25, 2017 by

This is the eighth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

New England states have a variety of reasons for turning to competency-based education: higher expectations than ever before, the demand for skills that prepare students for an ever-changing world, and an understanding that the traditional system has become a stumbling block to the future of their children and the strength of their communities.

Below are a few highlights of the statewide system-building efforts that are taking place in New England.

  1. Proficiency-Based Diplomas

cross-curricular-skillsThe proficiency-based diploma policies developed in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont appear to be high-leverage in terms of engaging 100 percent of districts; however, the diploma policies cannot stand alone.

One of the variations across states is the number and types of domains that are included in the diploma policy. Maine has specified that students must demonstrate proficiency within eight domains, while Vermont and Rhode Island only require six. All states have included set state-level cross-curricular skills and offered resources to districts to help them develop a structure and build capacity. (For more on proficiency-based diplomas, stay tuned for the next blog in this series.)

  1. Calibration

How can parents be confident that their children are making progress and becoming proficient in all the skills they will need to graduate ready for college and careers?

What needs to be in place within the system itself so that students, parents, college admissions, and employers can have full confidence in the diploma?

These are the types of questions that must be addressed in redesigning the education system. As discussed previously, one of the most important elements needed to create a competency-based system is to create mechanisms that can calibrate (also referred to as moderation or tuning) what it means to be proficient for specific standards and competencies and at specific performance levels. If teachers, schools, districts, and states do not have a shared understanding of what it means to be proficient, then variability and inconsistency will continue to corrode the reliability of schools and undermine efforts to eliminate the achievement gap. (more…)

Seven Key Questions for States Looking to Transition to Competency Education

January 20, 2017 by

This is the seventh post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

Competency-based education is expanding across the country under a variety of different terms, including mastery-based, proficiency-based, and performance-based. Educators turn to competency-based education when they realize the traditional system isn’t working for many students – and is never going to work for all students. Teachers are frustrated by a system that expects them to teach students grade-level standards even if they are missing years of prerequisite skills. Students are frustrated by a system in which some of them are passed along with Cs and Ds, unable to engage in grade-level curriculum, while others endure the boredom of doing seat-time because they already know the content.

For district leaders and policymakers seeking to introduce K-12 competency-based education within their states, there are key questions to consider when looking to begin this transition. Early on in the process, states need to make a few important decisions that will lay the foundation for the rest of their efforts. These decisions make a difference.

  1. michael-martin-quoteHow will the vision and direction be described/defined?

States vary in how they describe their vision. Vermont focused on a triad of personalization, proficiency-based learning, and flexible pathways. New Hampshire has stayed focused primarily on a competency-based system with a strong emphasis on creating a balanced assessment system. Maine’s vision was outlined in the strategic education plan and has been communicated as a proficiency-based diploma supported by a standards-based system.

  1. What is the theory of change?

What is the underlying theory of change of the state policy? As has been discussed in the earlier section on policy features, states will need to think beyond the specific authorizing policies to consider how to engage districts, schools, and educators in understanding the underlying values, building expertise in personalization and competency-based education, and initiating implementation.

  1. What is the implication of the strategy for engaging communities?

Community engagement—not simply marketing an idea and buy-in, but authentic and respectful community engagement—is an essential ingredient for effective implementation. It establishes dialogue and demonstrates respect, which are both important first steps in transitioning from the traditional values to the new values and assumptions that create the necessary culture for competency-based education. When done well, it can catalyze trust-building and create opportunities to experience the new values. It also lays the groundwork to help parents and the community understand why the transition to competency education is important so they are not taken by surprise when policies that are visible to them, such as grading policies, eventually change. (more…)

A Close-Up Look at How a Workshop Framework Can Enhance Personalized Learning

January 19, 2017 by

workshopWhen I started teaching first grade over twenty-five years ago, I quickly realized that I was going to need additional strategies and support in order to help each of my students become independent readers and writers. The research and work of Donald Graves had a profound impact on my teaching as a young educator. I can remember reading Writing: Teachers and Children at Work (Graves, 1983) and falling in love with the workshop approach. This was the kind of supportive, communal learning experience I wanted to replicate for my students.

It was this revolutionary research and work of Donald Graves and his colleagues Lucy Calkins (Calkins, 1986) and Mary Ellen Giacobbe (Giacobbe, 2006) that supported my early years of teaching. Donald Graves taught me how to create a safe space for children to use their voices to tell their individual stories through speaking, listening, drawing, and writing. This philosophy of personalization enabled me to really listen to my student writers and allow them to show me what they needed next for instruction.

Fast forward to 2008 when I found myself working as an Instructional Strategist in RSU #57 in southern Maine. Conversations were beginning in Maine about WHY we needed to transform teaching and learning in the twenty-first century. I listened to Tony Wagner, Co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, speak at an ASCD conference about his research. His research findings presented a strong case for reimagining our school systems and teaching the 7 Survival Skills of -21st Century Students to prepare students for college and careers in a new global economy.

My school district embraced this effort and hired coaches from the Reinventing Schools organization to guide us. Staff began to wrap their heads around the concept of “learning is the constant, time is the variable.” We were encouraged to start growing a personalized, proficiency-based learning model in our classrooms. What this would look like in practice became a focus of our collaborative conversations and work. (more…)

Three Lessons Learned from New England States Transitioning to Competency-Based Education

January 11, 2017 by

This is the sixth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

david-prinstein-quoteWhat can we learn about state-level strategies from New England states transitioning to competency-based education? At this point in the evolution of competency education, there are a few solid lessons to be learned from the New England region. It is helpful to compare and contrast the different approaches of the states, looking for powerful insights into the considerations of different strategies and approaches, as this provides deeper understanding and can shine a light on what is the best path for a state. Some states, such as Connecticut, may want to create enabling policies, while others, like Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, will contemplate bolder, more comprehensive steps toward transformation.

However, context matters: considerations need to include public demand and level of public trust, what is already in place, the degree to which districts and schools have already embraced some or all of the elements of competency education, level of consensus among leadership, competing agenda items, and the structural and financial issues that shape schools, such as district consolidations, funding, and political turmoil.

Three Important Lessons Learned

  1. Educators turn to competency-based education because it makes sense regardless of the state policy. Given the strong state leadership in establishing comprehensive competency-based policy in most of the New England states, it would be easy to think that state policy is always the first step in making the transition to competency-based education. However, there are innovators and schools considering competency-based education in Massachusetts with little encouragement from state leaders. In Maine, one of the original sources of early innovation were the districts that formed the Maine Collaborative for Customized Learning.
  2. Policy is important, but not sufficient. Establishing high-leverage policy such as proficiency-based diplomas or credits will direct districts toward competency education. However, it doesn’t mean they will move quickly to implementation or that they will implement it effectively. Creating innovation space doesn’t necessarily produce a groundswell of innovators. Statewide change requires a combination of innovation space, support, networks, and political coverage. Maine provided upfront training to a “coalition of the willing” before passing a policy that created proficiency-based diplomas. Vermont and New Hampshire have extensive support strategies, although they are very different in design. Most importantly, community engagement strategies need to be deployed to provide opportunities for shaping the vision of the district and schools as well as to learn about competency-based education practices.
  3. Walk the talk by using similar guiding principles as those found in personalized, competency-based districts. It isn’t going to work for states to use traditional change and communication strategies if they want to move beyond the traditional system. For example, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to implement competency-based education through compliance strategies. Compliance assumes that the state knows exactly what should be done when, in fact, there are many ways to design personalized, competency-based models. The paradigm shift is too important to the process of transformation—educators and community members need the opportunity to learn, to reflect, and to decide that this is what they want to do. In addition, the large systemic changes have many implications to be considered. Co-design or collaborative processes that draw on multiple perspectives is a much stronger strategy.

(more…)

A Timeline of K-12 Competency-Based Education Across New England States

January 10, 2017 by

This is the fifth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

The New England region stands out for its early innovations, bold vision, and high percentage of districts becoming competency-based. Yet, a quick glance at the timeline shows that the earliest models popped up on both sides of the country – in Boston and Anchorage – around 1995. So why is it that competency-based education has taken hold in New England with such momentum?

timelineLet’s take a look at a few of the possibilities.

A Good Idea Creates Continuity

The New England states have not had continuity in leadership. Governors have changed, as have the Secretaries of Education and other key personnel. Complicated budget issues, volatile political dynamics, and redistricting have demanded attention. Yet competency education has continued to be a major priority. Why? Because there are enough people in influential positions who believe in it. Some have argued that because students in New England states are relatively high-achieving, there just isn’t any other way to generate improvement except to create a more personalized, flexible system. Moreover, many educators will vouch for it, affirming that once you understand what competency education can do, there is no going back. With strong local control, this makes it harder for state leadership to change course because the policy is perceived as beneficial to students and educators. (more…)

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