When I read a recent edition of the Shelburne News, I was a bit surprised to find a great deal of space dedicated to the viewpoint of someone who shared concerns about proficiency-based learning (Proficiency-based learning: The risk of a level playing field Updated Nov 27, 2019) based on his experience in a district where no Shelburne students attend and referencing some practices that do not represent any of the schools in our district (CVSD). While it is true that ACT 77 requires all Vermont schools to graduate students based on demonstrating proficiency on established standards, districts have the autonomy to establish structures and practices that align with this requirement. In an article printed in this paper last year, the CVSD school board addressed questions about our district’s application of PBL and Act 77. That article does a nice job of describing the what and why of CVSD’s system for proficiency-based learning (PBL), but essentially, there are four primary tenets that drive our system: establish desired results, determine acceptable evidence, design relevant instruction, and track and report learning. I would, however, like to respond to a few points the author addressed that do apply to the philosophy aligned with Act 77 and applied in CVSD schools.
Not A Sports Contest
The author often used sports as an analogy to demonstrate the shortcomings of a system designed to “make sure everyone is proficient.” He asks the reader to imagine sports if scoring was unclear and no decisive winners were allowed. First of all, PBL at CVSD is designed to clearly articulate what proficiency and beyond looks like, so every student can be challenged and motivated by rigorous expectations. Secondly, our high school communicates at least quarterly how each student is doing relative to our desired results for each course; in terms of clarity, students are getting far more detailed feedback than they did before PBL. For the sake of argument, though, let’s look at this analogy. In sports contests, there can be only one winner, and that must come at the expense of someone else’s failure. When we’re talking about the education and future of a child, there can--and should--be many “decisive winners,” and it should not come at the expense of anyone else’s learning. I coached and taught in this district for many years. When I coached varsity basketball, I always had to make decisions about which five players deserved playing time at that point in time, always at the expense of seven to nine others who would watch from the bench. In the classroom, I had no restrictions on how many students could succeed. In fact, I had an obligation to develop as many successful learners as possible. The job of educators should not be to sort talent; it should be to develop it. I am thankful education is NOT a sports contest and therefore does NOT require that only a finite number of students can succeed.
The author poses several questions, some about practices we do implement in our district and about some we do not. Continuing with the sports analogy, I’d like to address his questions about how the PBL practices of retakes and only counting end-of-year grades prepare students for college or the workplace. When I coached, I often had players who improved significantly during the season. When it was time for the playoffs, I did not take all of my players’ stats for the season and average them to determine my starters. I chose the players most skilled at the end-of-season...of course. What a player could or could not do three months ago does not represent what he can do now. That is why the end-of-year grade is the most accurate representation of what a student knows, understands, and can do. Ironically, sports DO serve as a good metaphor for proficiency-based learning in this respect: practice. Games give coaches and players feedback and identify areas that need growth. Consequently, they adjust their instruction and implementation, and they focus on developing deep learning that will translate into better performance for the next game (the re-take, if you will). Teachers and students take the same approach in a PBL classroom, only “games” are replaced by assessments.
Differentiating Instruction for Mastery
The author states educational decision-makers cite questionable research as justification for “...plowing ahead.” In an article (No Need For Speed) published in Harvard Ed magazine, Parisa Rouhani, Ed.M.’10 Ed.D.’19, shares her findings of a study she conducted about how the brain learns. She states: “When students are allowed to master the material, they perform better in the course. That seems obvious, almost too obvious to need a study to tell us this, but if it’s so obvious that mastery is key, then why aren’t all of our schools adopting models of mastery learning and why haven’t we done away with rigid fixed-pace instructional environments?”
The author closes by suggesting we go back to letting “...our students nervously prepare for each test…” In Most Likely to Succeed, there’s a reference to a study conducted by the Lawrenceville School, consistently rated one of the very best elite private schools in the U.S. The school asked students to retake a final exam they took three months earlier, even simplifying the exam by removing some of the questions the faculty felt were too detailed to expect students to remember. When students took the exam originally, the average grade was 87%. When they took the simplified version three months later, the average was 58%. “Not one student retained mastery of all important concepts covered by the course.” Lawrenceville made significant changes to how courses were taught after that experiment, emphasizing deeper learning (p 41). I would prefer that each student goes into each “test” or summative assessment, as we call them, calm and confident because they have been asked to practice and demonstrate that knowledge and those skills repeatedly through formative assessments and learning opportunities. They’ll know they’re prepared. It’s the same hope I have for all our graduates when they prepare for what’s next, and the primary tenets of PBL have better positioned us to accomplish that for every student.
CVSD Director of Learning & Innovation