Home > Uncategorized > Maine Is Reversing Direction on Competency Based Diplomas. What is the Lesson for Other States?

Maine Is Reversing Direction on Competency Based Diplomas. What is the Lesson for Other States?

October 20, 2018

Chalkbeat writer Matt Barnum wrote a lengthy and link-flied article describing the rise and fall of Maine’s efforts to implement competency based diplomas for its schools, an article that thoroughly described all the landmines associated with the effort but one that overlooked the fundamental problem, which is the strong hold of the “sort and select” paradigm in our culture.

A quick history of the movement in Maine: In 2012 Maine’s Governor Paul LePage supported legislation to abandon the traditional awarding of high school diplomas based on the accumulation of credits tied to seat time and replace it with a competency based model. Nellie Mae, a philanthropic organization that advocates student centered learning, played a pivotal role in this initiative:

(In early 2012) the Massachusetts-based Nellie Mae Foundation awarded nearly $9 million to two of Maine’s largest school districts, Portland and Sanford. The money was meant to help them adopt what the organization calls “student-centered” approaches. That includes what’s called mastery, competency, or proficiency-based learning, which means that students progress at their own pace, moving on only when they demonstrate they’ve learned a certain topic.

This “student centered” approach failed in Maine for several reasons, the primary one being that there was no effort to develop a uniform state-level consensus on what constituted “mastery”. As Mr. Barnum reports, once the state mandated “proficiency based” diplomas:

Each district was tasked with determining what it meant for a student to be “proficient” in the subjects Maine required. Officials knew that if they set standards too high, an unprecedented number of students could fail to graduate. Too low, and it would defeat the purpose of the whole exercise.

Without a robust State Department to provide technical assistance, districts turned to out-of-state consultants to help them or foundered on their own. The result was a hodgepodge of definitions for proficiency and, ultimately, the decision to abandon the approach altogether at the state level.

I am a firm advocate of “…mastery, competency, or proficiency-based learning”… but that approach is incompatible with the traditional batching of students by age and the traditional method of grading students. As I learned when I attempted to promote this kind of model in districts I led, anyone attempting to change this dominant paradigm of awarding student grades can expect hard pushback from two sources: teachers and parents.

Many teachers are resistant because, as the article explains, they need to make difficult and substantive changes to the way they deliver instruction, changes that some find discomforting. Teachers who hold the view that they are the purveyors of knowledge and students must absorb that knowledge and demonstrate their understanding of it by passing a relatively small number of high stakes tests see students who fail in their classrooms as “not working up to my standards”. Mr. Barnum described that subset of teachers as follows:

(Researchers) found that most teachers continued using traditional exams, not portfolios or performances. Some teachers remained overwhelmed by the prospect of helping struggling students clear the bar without more guidance.

And the teachers who were reluctant to change the current system found allies in parents who liked things the way they were, especially the parents of high achieving children who valued the traditional system that invariably identified their children as the best. Their support for the traditional grading system was buttressed by the fact that many colleges expressed confusion over the meaning of the new system, a valid confusion given that “proficiency” meant different things in different districts.

Changing paradigms requires changing minds… and as the post I wrote yesterday about the GOP-raised teacher in Oklahoma indicates, changing minds requires a combination of adverse experiences and a willingness to question one’s core convictions. This is unlikely to happen in public schools in the short run because parents whose children are successful in school are invested in keeping the system as it is. Their children experience no adversity with the current paradigm: they progress from grade-level to grade-level with no difficulty. Moreover, the current method of ranking students places their children at the top. Why change?

Nor do teachers who work in schools see any value in changing the way schools are organized. The current system efficiently drives the poor-performing students out and identifies the best-and-brightest. Replacing it with some kind of system that nebulously defines “competency” can only lead to needless confusion and, as teachers in Maine experienced, lots of wheel spinning and work.

The best hope for changing the status quo is the development of a collective belief that the current age-based grading system is flawed… and perversely the only way that collective belief can be achieved is through the continued emphasis on testing. MAYBE parents and teachers who currently value the status quo but detest the impact of standardized testing can coalesce around a new paradigm based on the notion that learning should be constant and time should be variable. The entire system we have in place now is based on the opposite belief: that TIME is constant and LEARNING is variable.

My advice to Nellie Mae is to focus on developing a set of competencies that all children should master, developing a clear and common definition of those competencies, and the developing a new paradigm that is better than the one we have in place now.


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