Thursday, January 7, 2016

Update on Our Proficiency Based Learning (PBL) Goals for 2015-16

In Gorham, we believe that student engagement and student achievement improve when the components of a "proficiency-based learning" (PBL) system are in place across all grades and content areas.  Those components are:  clear learning targets, aligned instruction and assessments, timely interventions, and grading/reporting that reflects those learning targets. 

Side Note Before we go too much further, how about a few definitions:

*  Proficiency Based Learning - A system of learning whereby students must demonstrate skills and knowledge based upon the attainment of specific rigorous standards of learning.
*  Learning Targets - The "smallest" components of a proficiency based system.  These are the learning objectives that guide the design of curriculum units of study that move students toward the achievement of Performance Indicators.
*  Performance Indicators - The "medium" sized components of a proficiency based system.  There are approximately 4-6 indicators by grade/grade span or course/learning experience for each content area standard that move students toward the achievement of graduation standards.
*  Graduation Standards - The "next to the largest" sized components of a proficiency based system.  There are usually 3-8 graduation standards for each content area.  These are what must be met in order to graduate from a proficiency based learning system.
*  Cross Curricular Graduation Standards - The "largest" sized components of a proficiency based system.  These are the five guiding principles of Maine's Learning Results that are taught in all content areas - things like being an "effective communicator" or an "integrated problem solver", etc.

Here's a visual that will help see how these pieces relate:

You can also find more information on the MDOE website at:

SORRY FOR SIDETRACKING THERE - JUST TRYING TO BUILD UP SOME UNDERSTANDING OF THE TERMS YOU'LL BE SEEING MORE AND MORE OF AS WE MOVE ALONG IN THIS WORK.  Please know that we hope you continue to ask questions of teachers, principals and others to learn more for yourself what these terms mean and how they relate to the daily educational activities of your child - but that's probably a whole other series of blog posts - so we'll leave it here for now.  Hope it helped!  Now back to the update! 


What teacher, student, or parent wouldn't want the things that students have to learn at every grade level and in every content area to be clear to all stakeholders rather than being kept some kind of a secret? Who wouldn't want the instruction and assessments used by teachers across all grades and subjects to be aligned to those learning targets and actually assess student skills in those areas instead of something else entirely?  If a student isn't doing well, at any time, who wouldn't want an educational system that responds quickly and effectively to assist students in meeting learning targets before a student gets so far behind that they begin to lose confidence in themselves as learners?  And finally, what teacher, student, or parent wouldn't want the grades that are earned and reported on to be a clear reflection of student achievement in these specific skills and not necessarily a reflection of time spent in a room or based solely on effort?  The answer is no one.  The components of a proficiency-based learning system are really just really good teaching practices. They are the time-tested things that have always worked in any successful educational system.  The difference is that now we are really trying to pay attention to these components and are working diligently to build our entire K-12 system around meeting these ideals and making them a reality for our all our students rather than simply paying them lip service.  Now, to be clear, I don’t think Gorham has ever been in a situation (at least not in recent history) where the majority of our students flounder, or where the majority of our teachers don’t use these really good teaching practices.  But with a proficiency based learning system, we simply aren’t leaving it to chance and are building our entire system around these excellent practices so that all of our students experience the benefit of these common excellent practices.

Our overall goal here in Gorham is to fully implement our proficiency based learning system district-wide by the 2017-18 school year.  Over the past few years we've done a great deal of work to move us closer to meeting this goal.  We have created a draft of our graduation standards (which are being piloted and are still subject to change) that are aligned with Maine's Parameters for Essential Instruction.  We have created performance indicators aligned to these graduation standards in all content areas in grades K-12.  Currently, we are in the process of developing scoring criteria for the performance indicators as well as summative assessments that will enable students to show their level of proficiency at each performance indicator.  

This year we have had several major focus areas at the K-5 level.  The first has been to have teachers  use our new standards-based grading software called "JumpRope" to track student progress in their learning of ELA and Math.  Although parents have not yet interacted with this new software, the intent is for them to do so once teachers feel comfortable with JumpRope and have worked the "bugs" out of the system.  This will make sure that the system is reporting clearly and consistently on student learning before opening it up to parents.  Once the parent portal is open, parents can see how their children are performing and what skills they are learning in real time.  So far this work has been going well with K-5 teachers.  They are finding the areas of the system that need to be tweaked and improved and are learning how to utilize the system to track student learning efficiently and effectively.

Another major focus area at the K-5 level has been to finish up work on creating performance indicators and scoring criteria aligned to our graduation standards in the areas of science, social studies, art, music, and physical education so that next year we may also be able to track student learning in these areas via JumpRope.  This work is moving along nicely as teachers utilize Early Release afternoons and other professional release time for this purpose as well as to create aligned summative assessments.

The hope is that once this "infrastructure" work is complete (the creation of performance indicators, scoring criteria, and common assessments aligned to our graduation standards in all eight content areas), we will be able to utilize JumpRope to fully track all student learning, and to open up the JumpRope grading and reporting system to parents who can then become true partners with teachers in the learning process.  Additionally, by making this learning clear and transparent, students will also be able to utilize JumpRope to track their own learning, identify their own areas of strength and challenge, and better understand what they are learning, why they are learning it, how they can be successful in their learning, and what comes next in their learning once they have mastered a particular skill.

This year's focus areas for grades 6-8 are to finalize performance indicators and scoring criteria aligned to graduation standards in all eight content areas, to pilot the use of JumpRope in grade 7 during the fourth quarter, and to improve our intervention systems for students.

Middle school teachers are working diligently during our Early Release afternoons to finalize performance indicators and scoring criteria in all eight content areas and to create and revise aligned summative assessments.  So far, so good in this area.  In fact, a team of grade 7 teachers are on track to pilot the use of JumpRope in science during the fourth quarter.  Parents of 7th graders will be provided with training on how to utilize the system and how to make sense of the new reporting formats to stay informed on their student's learning.   The intent will then be to pilot JumpRope more broadly at the middle school level during the next school year.  A group of teachers at the middle school are also working closely with Principal Riley to review how the current EICAL block can be better utilized as a method to provide middle school students with timely and effective interventions.  

There are also proficiency based learning goals for the 6-12 grade span for this school year.  A lot of work is being done to bring consistency across the 6-12 system.  One area of focus is on the alignment of grading practices within our proficiency based learning system, including how to separate out skills for life (things like turning homework in on time, or taking pride in one’s work, etc.) from academic skills.  Another goal is to improve teachers’ ability to develop high quality assessments in all content areas and at all grade levels. 

A "Grading and Reporting" committee has been developed at each of the two schools comprised of administrators and teachers both to improve assessment literacy for teachers and to align grading practices at these grade levels to our proficiency based learning system.  These two committees are being overseen by a "6-12 Committee" that is working to make sure these practices are implemented consistently across grades 6-12.  Additionally, the 6-12 Committee is working to develop a plan for how to separate out skills for life from academic skills at these grade levels.  The intent is for this plan to be piloted starting at the middle school during the next school year.

Additional goals for this school year at the high school level only are to develop performance indicators and scoring criteria in all GHS courses, and to figure out how to expand effective intervention opportunities for high school students during the school day.  Summative assessment work is also being done during early release afternoons and inservice days by high school staff with the hope that these assessments will be piloted during the next school year.  A scheduling committee is currently reviewing the GHS schedule with the intent of implementing changes during the next school year that will allow for additional intervention time to be built in during the school day.

In addition to all this internal infrastructure work, the Gorham School Committee has begun a process to "re-vision" its district mission/vision and core beliefs.  A steering committee has been created consisting of teachers, administrators, students, parents, and community members to guide this work.  This group is focused on gathering appropriate feedback from all key stakeholders that will be used to guide the development of our vision and to refine our Proficiency based learning system implementation for the school district over the course of the next 5-7 years.  The first stages of this feedback collection will begin in earnest later this month and be conducted over the course of this winter and later this spring, culminating in the creation of a new mission/vision and set of core beliefs for the Gorham Schools by June.

By sharing this update with all of you, my hope is that you gain an understanding of the work we are undertaking here in Gorham to implement a proficiency based learning system that will meet the requirements of Maine's statutes, and more importantly, will improve student engagement and student achievement within our schools.  I also hope that you get a sense of the direction of this work, the intended timelines, and just how hard all of our staff are working to make our system better for all of our students.  As always, if you have questions, please reach out to your child's teacher, your school's principal, or to me directly and we will all do our best to answer them.  

Thank you!