Moving from Compliance to Agency: Maine Modifies its Proficiency-Based Policy

August 21, 2018 by

By Tony Webster (Maine State Legislature Office (Capitol) – Augusta) via Wikimedia Commons

The growing concerns about proficiency-based learning has led to the Maine state legislature repealing the proficiency-based diploma and modifying its policy that all school districts be expected to implement proficiency-based education. (A note: There are complications about when this goes into effect and, for those students already in proficiency-based systems, they will need to complete their high school experience with the same graduation requirements in which they started according to Maine law.) School districts do retain the option to move to proficiency-based learning and many are likely to do so.

Poor implementation by districts that were only making the changes to comply with state law rather than thinking about designing around what is best for students to learn created confusion such as thinking that proficiency-based learning is only a change in grading practice. Understandably, parents pushed back when districts mistakenly focused on the issue of “time being a variable” and no longer required students to attend school without having put into place the system that is designed to support student learning, such as building intrinsic motivation and systems of feedback on the habits of success. Instead of demanding effective implementation, the concerns about problematic implementation were directed at proficiency-based learning itself. Thus, the lagging districts that were driven by compliance were undermining the efforts of those leading districts that were empowered and driven to forge proficiency-based systems designed around research on how students learn. (more…)

What’s New

May 11, 2018 by

Math, writing, and executive function! Learn about the search for new breakthroughs in The Gates Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Want Your Ideas On The Future Of Education.

US Department of Education is highlighting personalized learning in the Education Innovation and Research grants.

Must Read: I’ve just read the following two papers and think they are must reads! We all need to know the research on learning sciences. Seriously, everyone in the education field, from a person designing a new application to the U.S. Secretary of Education, needs to dive into the learning sciences if they haven’t already. Two relatively recent papers are really helpful as they summarize the research across fields:

These aren’t simple papers, so I suggest engaging colleagues to read and discuss the sections of the papers that relate the most directly to you and your work. We need similar papers that summarize what we know about instruction in each of the content areas, as well.

What’s Happening in the States

Local media is a great way to get a sense of what is going on in a region. It’s a clue that grading has been introduced too early when there are letters to the editor in support of A-F grading. (more…)

What’s New: What’s Happening in State Policy

April 18, 2018 by

This article reviews some of the new state policy resources and highlights the types of discussion and initiatives taking place in the individual states. Nevada is joining the group of states that are supporting innovative districts, and Mississippi is supporting an innovation network. The most important thing to pay attention to is the discussion and debate in Maine as they decide whether they are going to continue to believe that their students and educators can learn to high standards and will keep learning how to support students in doing so…or if they modify expectations. Fingers crossed that the discussion moves from what’s wrong to what we need to make sure all of our students learn!

State Policy Resources

Across the country, state policymakers have been engaged in thinking through how they can strengthen their policies and infrastructures to better (more…)

Creating a Peer Coaching Program to Grow Student-Centered Learning (Part 2)

January 16, 2018 by

This post originally appeared at Students at the Center on January 2, 2018. Read Part 1 here.

Mary Bellavance

In part I of this three-part series, I wrote about how Maine’s Biddeford School District created a peer coaching program to support our teachers as they spread a student-centered learning model across the district. Part II shares three of the most important lessons from the experience.

Develop a plan that is closely aligned to your district’s goals

  • Does your district have a strategic plan (or even just a set of well-defined goals) to help implement student-centered learning over a five-to seven-year timeframe? If so, it will help all stakeholders stay focused on the peer coaching steps necessary to help reach this goal. If not, Douglas Reeves offers recommendations in his book Leading Change in Your School: How to Conquer Myths, Build Commitment, and Get Results. Reeves addresses how to create the conditions for change, then plan, implement and sustain it.
  • Also, make sure you are clear about your goals for a peer coaching initiative and how those goals connect with the district’s ambitions for student-centered learning.

(more…)

Creating a Peer Coaching Program to Grow Student-Centered Learning (Part 1)

January 9, 2018 by

This post originally appeared at Students at the Center on December 15, 2017.

Mary Bellavance

In southern Maine, the little corner of the world where I teach, coach and learn, we are in the midst of transitioning to a student-centered learning (SCL) model. The Biddeford School Department is a public, K-12 system serving 2,425 students. I am an instructional coach at the middle school and am in my second year serving as the coordinator of the K-12 peer coaching program, a program that we created as a way to support our staff in building and sustaining a student-centered learning system.

Since our journey began, district leadership has encouraged collaboration among all stakeholders. School leaders engaged staff, students and parents in conversations about what our students need to be college- and career-ready in the 21st century. With the support of our school board, Superintendent Jeremy Ray made sure the message was clear: we were engaging in this transformative work because it’s what is best for children.

Part of our student-centered approach is that it is proficiency-based (also called competency-based). Maine passed a law in 2012 requiring that every school district determine standards for proficiency in eight areas and award diplomas, beginning in 2021, based on those standards being met.

Our SCL Road Map

The state has left it up to educators in each district to collaborate, plan and implement their version of proficiency-based education. The district must provide students with timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs. It became apparent that supports would be as necessary for the educators —who are also new to student-centered, proficiency-based learning—  as they are for the students. For help conceptualizing an SCL implementation plan, we reached out to Reinventing Schools, and they provided training and coaching. Reinventing Schools is a division of Marzano Research — one of the most well-known proponents of proficiency-based education.

The Launch Training

Teachers were invited—not mandated—to participate in a training session with an educational consultant from Reinventing Schools. The first group of enthusiastic staff members, about 25 in all, learned how to transform their classrooms to more learner-centered environments, including how to use the Affinity Diagram process with students to create a shared vision and code of cooperation—critical to the infrastructure of the new approach. They also spent time considering how they would build collegiality in their schools to pave the way for the acquisition of new skills among colleagues who did not attend the training session. These early activities were necessary to lay the foundation for our continued work with essential standards and to build a transparent, rigorous curriculum for our learners.

Using the skills acquired at the training, teachers worked with their students to develop shared visionscodes of cooperation and standard operating procedures for their classrooms.  These exercises provided the opportunity for students to take ownership of their learning, one of the four research-based tenets of Jobs for the Future’s (JFF) Student-Centered Learning Model. (more…)

Red Flag: When Habits of Work and Learning Become Extrinsic Motivation

August 29, 2017 by

If I had only two choices between a thumbs-up and thumbs-down, I don’t know which I would use to comment on Portland School District’s new policy that will prohibit students from participating in extracurricular activities if they don’t meet the expectations for demonstrating the habits of work and learning. It is a great idea for a school district to embrace the idea of Habits of Work and Learning (I’ll use HOW as an acronym to indicate the behaviors and skills students need to learn only because HOWL raises images of wolves in my mind), since becoming a lifelong learner is essential to preparing students for college, career, citizenship, and their well-being as adults. However, in tying it to access to and the denial of extracurricular activities, the district has bureaucratized and corrupted the power of using HOW to engage and motivate students.

When you see a good idea at a school, it makes sense that district leaders would want to scale it to everyone. Certainly Portland’s Casco Bay High School a leading example of competency-based education highlights how a competency-based structure (referred to as proficiency-based in Maine) can contribute to a school that has a rich pedagogical theory of learning emphasizing inquiry, communities of learning, and horizon-broadening experiences. The problem is that when we do this, we take a practice out of the context of the culture and related practices that make it work. Implementing habits of work and learning as a gate for whether students can play football will simply never work to improve engagement, motivation, and academic learning, or to prepare students as lifelong learners. Here’s why.

#1 Opening the Door to Opportunities for Learning, Not Closing Them

In competency-based (or proficiency-based) schools, the practice is to shift how we communicate student progress. The traditional grading system is based on points (extrinsic motivation that works for the students at the top and does little for everyone else) for: 1) assignments and summative assessments (which may indicate how well a student understands the material but does little or nothing to motivate students who are not understanding, as they never have a chance to go back and learn it) and 2) points for behavior that may be related to learning or not (being helpful or bringing in cans for the food drive). Zeros for not turning in an assignment are nearly impossible to recover from and will actually chip away at a student’s motivation.

Underlying the traditional grading system are two beliefs: 1) extrinsic motivation is the best way to get students to put in the effort and 2) a focus on ranking students that believes some students are smart and others not so much, and there is little a teacher can do to help students learn. The second one is directly related to our ability as a nation to improve equity or continue to reproduce it – if we don’t think students can really learn, we just pass them on with Cs and Ds. If we believe that all students can learn, if we truly believe the evidence underlying Dweck’s theory of a growth mindset, then we should be constantly seeking out opportunities for students to keep learning and for educators to have opportunity to build their skills to better support students. Instead of ranking, we should be monitoring growth and seeking to discover each student’s potential.

In competency-based grading systems, we make two big changes from the traditional grading system. First, grading is no longer used to rank students. It is focused solely on letting students know how they are progressing toward mastering the material. A student who attempts a unit with misconceptions and/or gaps from previous years may stumble at first and take more time to do some more learning. The scoring system lets them know if they are just getting started, are making progress but aren’t quite there yet, or have mastered the material. All students have a chance of succeeding if they keep at it and if they receive effective instructional support. (It’s important to remember: Asking a student who has a misconception to just keep trying is totally unfair. They’ll never know that they have a misconception and will discover no way of uncovering it. It will only reinforce that they are dumb, when the fact is that no adult offered them the help they need.) (more…)

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…)

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