Friday, September 23, 2016

Proficiency Based Learning Update Series - Post #1

Recently, the Gorham School Committee approved of the 2016-17Proficiency Based Learning (PBL) Action Plan that will guide our district’s work for this year in creating a PBL system for our students.   As you may or may not be aware, this work has been ongoing for several years now with the goal of having a PBL system in place for the graduating class of 2021 (our current 8th grade class).   There is certainly much work to do to make this happen, and one of the most essential components of making this new system successful for our students is in making sure all of you know what “it” (PBL) is and most importantly WHY we are moving in this important new direction.  As a means to this end, I will be developing a “PBL Informational Blog Series” aimed at helping parents and community members to better understand our new PBL system, where we are, and where we are headed.  This article is intended to help “kick off” this series!  Here we go!

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 standards/outcomes, aligned instruction and assessments, timely help for students that need it, and grading/reporting that reflects all those things and communicates clearly to all stakeholders where students are in their learning.

Before people can begin to understand how our PBL system works, you need to understand the fundamental differences between PBL and the traditional models of schooling that we all grew up in.

What is Proficiency-Based Learning?

Proficiency-based learning – refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating that they have learned the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress through their education.  (Note:  A few of the more common synonyms include competency-based, mastery-based, outcome-based, performance-based, and standards-based education, instruction, and learning, among others). 

In Maine, academic expectations and “proficiency” definitions for public-school courses, learning experiences, content areas and grade levels are outlined in the Maine Learning Results, which includes the Guiding Principles.  Based upon these core documents provided by the State, each local school unit then creates their own local system of standards and graduation requirements that are aligned to these core documents.  The general goal of proficiency-based education is to ensure that students acquire the knowledge and skills that are deemed to be essential to success in school, higher education, careers, and adult life. 

If you would like to learn more about the State’s guidance for the development of a proficiency based system of learning, you can review materials on their website called “Getting to Proficiency” located at this link:

How is PBL Different From Our Traditional Models of Schooling?

Below is a table taken from the Maine Department of Education’s work with an organization called “The New England Secondary School Consortium” or NESSC.  Please know that this table is intended to provide an overview of differences and is NOT intended to list all possible variations, or to successfully harness the complexities of either system.  You can learn more by going to:

Traditional Models of Learning

Proficiency Based Models of Learning

Students are promoted from one grade to the next based largely on credits, age, and the amount of time they have spent in school.
Students are promoted from one learning level to the next based entirely on their ability to demonstrate proficiency in meeting required clearly defined learning standards.
Students learn at a pace that is largely determined in advance by the teacher and school schedule.
The learning determines the amount of time required, time does not determine how much a student can learn.
A one-size-fits all approach to learning typically focuses on predetermined tasks (such as tests and quizzes) and compliance.
Students have more control over their education and – since the focus is on acquiring specific concepts and skills, not executing specific tasks – they can learn in ways that work best for them.  Students may execute different tasks or co-design projects based on their individual interests, but learning expectations always remain the same.
Major learning gaps persist or worsen over time because grades are not directly tied to a single set of consistent expectations.
Achievement gaps are minimized or eliminated because all students are held to the same learning expectations.  If students fall behind, they are given the extra time and support they need when they need it to make sure gaps do not grow.
Learning expectations can be wildly uneven across courses, which undermines validity and accuracy of student grades.
Standards enforce a minimum level of required proficiency that empowers schools to maintain high learning expectations across all courses, subjects, and grades.
A diploma may or may not certify that students have met state-required standards or that they are prepared for success in college, work, and life.
Every diploma is based on demonstrated proficiency in meeting local and state-required standards, which are based on what students need to know and be able to do to succeed as college students, employees, and citizens.
A student who was “compliant” and turned their homework in on time often got “good grades” even though they may not have truly understood materials being covered.
Content area skills and other important skills such as timely work completion are instructed and assessed separately so that performance in one set of skills does provide undue weight in the other

Why is Gorham moving to this new system of education?

The relatively easy, yet entirely incorrect answer would be to say we are creating this model because the State of Maine, through LD 1422, requires us to.  The real answer, however is that we see the creation of this system as a mechanism through which we can make our mission/vision and core beliefs about learning a true reality for ALL our students.

The Gorham School’s Proficiency Based Learning System is built first and foremost upon the foundations of our Mission/Vision and Core Beliefs About Learning.  We believe that by moving in this direction, we are “preparing” and “inspiring” our students by focusing on teaching them how to be critical thinkers and clear communicators, by making sure that we are meeting each student where they are in their own learning, and challenging them to do their very best in meaningful ways.  We believe our new system of education will extend learning beyond the four walls of our classrooms and into our communities and we believe that we will create a system that allows us to personalize student learning to meet each student’s needs, allowing them to follow their passions and dreams now and well into the future!  That’s why we are doing this important work!

More to Come!

Hopefully this first article in our PBL system series has helped you to gain a better understanding of what PBL is, and often just as importantly – what it is NOT.  It is important to understand that in a PBL system, good teaching is just good teaching and is very often the very same “good teaching" that you have seen in traditional classrooms.  Whole group mini-lessons with breakout workshops working with small groups of students, hands on, collaborative learning are all very much a part of a good PBL system, just as they have always been part of a good traditional system.  
The next article will focus on answering the question I’m sure you all have – "So, what does this new system look like in the classroom for our students?"