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Milestones and Benchmarks On the Way to a Proficiency-Based System

December 3, 2015 by

RSU2On numerous occasions, I have been asked, “On your journey to a proficiency-based system, what were the milestones and benchmarks that were critical to a successful transition?” In taking the time to reflect over the past few years, there are certainly points along the way that have proven to be vital as we’ve moved forward toward a solid proficiency-based learning system.

  • Training: It is without question that solid professional development and establishing a sound philosophical base for second order change is crucial. Our professional development began with exposure to a model developed by the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC). A small number of faculty and administrators were exposed to the concept of taking a different approach by trainers from RISC and students from Chugach, Alaska. We found there was a better way to educate our youth than the traditional model. Additional faculty received initial training, and we adopted a “train the trainer” approach wherein some faculty were identified as “Beacon” trainers and took the lead in spreading the knowledge throughout the district. Through some calendar magic, all professional development days in the annual calendar were moved to the beginning of the school year to allow all faculty to receive three full days of training from RISC personnel to start the year. At about halfway through the third day of training, faculty was asked to make a commitment to the movement toward a new system. Over 80 percent of the district faculty committed to supporting the transition. Not only was the amount of support astounding, it was a critical statement by the practitioners that they were ready for change.
  • Visioning: The district committed to a Shared Visioning process through which stakeholders were brought together to establish what they believed our schools should be and, more importantly, what our graduates should be able to do upon graduation from any of our high schools. Ultimately, a draft vision was presented to the Board of Directors for consideration. In a unanimous vote, the leadership of the district approved that vision and has maintained that level of commitment throughout our journey. They still refer to our vision as part of their decision making process. Having that kind of unwavering support is absolutely critical during what can be challenging times.
  • Separation of Work Ethic/Behavior from Performance on Standards: A major philosophical shift on the separation of issues relating to work ethic and behavior and how kids perform on standards is another crucial element during our journey. We believe that all kids can learn and that they learn in different ways and rates. It makes no difference how long it takes for a student to demonstrate their proficiency on established standards. It makes no difference how many times a student tries to demonstrate that proficiency, only that they do. Whether a student completes every homework assignment is immaterial to the fact that they have demonstrated mastery of a skill or concept. Issues of work ethic and behavior are important, but our stance is that reaching proficiency should be reported in its purest form, not influenced by factors unrelated to an assessment. The acceptance of this philosophical stance was absolutely critical to our movement forward.
  • Proficient on All Standards: As we moved toward implementation of our proficiency-based learning system, it was decided that students would be expected to demonstrate proficiency on all topics assigned to a course or a level before getting credit or moving on to whatever was next. When a student moves on to the next level in a content area, the receiving teacher knows that a student has been deemed proficient in all standards assigned to that previous level. When courses are reported on our transcripts, we can assure all who read them that if a student has been given credit for a course, they are proficient in all of the standards assigned to that course. Allowing students to move on after demonstrating proficiency on 80 percent (or less?) of assigned standards is no different than what we’ve allowed for years in a traditional setting. If it is important enough to teach in a course, it is important enough to expect proficiency. If not, the “Swiss cheese” effect of allowing holes in learning to follow students continues and we’ve changed nothing.
  • Leadership Change: Over the course of our journey to a proficiency-based learning system, we, as is the case with most districts, have experienced a change in district leadership. While a change in superintendent often causes a concern when second order change is in process, we have not only survived the change, we’ve thrived. Superintendent Don Siviski established a sound philosophical base for the change process to begin. Upon his retirement, the school board returned to the established vision and sought a new superintendent who would take the district on its next steps. As superintendent, Virgil Hammonds brought implementation experience toward a proficiency-based system with him. Those next steps were essential to our growth as a district. Following Mr. Hammonds, Bill Zima has brought a clear vision of what our next steps should be via a cycle of continuous improvement. The common thread is a school board with a clear vision to which they are committed, and a hiring process with purpose. They sought the right person to lead the district to the next level of change, and without their commitment to that vision, anxiety about leadership change could very well have turned into reality.

In summary: Training led to unwavering support. Visioning created direction that has lasted. Performance on standards would be pure. Proficiency on all standards for all learners set the expectation. Leadership change that maintained the vision is leading to continuous improvement.

I’m certain that if we asked the same question of veterans in the district about the milestones/benchmarks we experienced during our journey, we would get some in addition to those listed. I am confident that these five would exist on most if not all of their lists.

See also:

About the Author

Steve Lavoie is the principal at Richmond Middle/High School in RSU2 Maine. He previously served as the principal at Hall-Dale Middle/High School in the same district. RSU2 is a PreK-12 proficiency-based school district.

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