Although no research or evaluation can ever capture all the dynamics of change, I found the report Implementation of a Proficiency‐Based Diploma System in Maine: Phase II – District Level Analysis a fascinating read and incredibly affirming that we are going in the right direction. How often do you read, “a common theme clear in every district in this study was that the educators and educational leaders involved in this work were thinking deeply about ways to embrace this reform in a manner that benefitted every student. There was a great deal of hard work being done in schools and school districts to understand the needs of students, develop a plan to implement this legislative policy with fidelity, and work collaboratively with all stakeholders to improve the educational experiences of Maine’s children.” A reform in which educators are trying to understand the needs of students – that’s the heart of personalization!
The research team identified the following benefits of the personalized, proficiency-based approach being implemented in Maine:
• Improved student engagement
• Continued development of robust intervention systems for struggling students
• Collaborative professional work to develop common standards, align curriculum, and create assessments
• Collective and transparent monitoring of student progress and needs by educators, administrators and families.
All of us involved in competency education share a concern about equity and making sure that our students who struggle the most benefit the most from the new policies and practices. This list of benefits indicates to me that districts and schools in Maine are sharing this as they do the hard work of implementation.
Yet, there were also concerns about equity in the list of challenges. One of the challenges listed in the report raised the question of serving special education students within a proficiency-based diploma system. Competency education is raising the bar in establishing proficiency-based graduation requirements rather than credit-based ones, and in doing so, is causing us to reflect on the implications of establishing a diploma that has meaning. The report could have been more helpful in understanding both the benefits and challenges that proficiency-based education bring to serving students with special education. For example, in my recent travels in New Hampshire, I consistently heard that special education staff were working more closely with teachers around specific learning targets and that there were deep conversations going on about how to better modify assessments without modifying standards.
The list of challenges raised in the report can be helpful to other states and districts trying to think through potential bumps in the road and unintended consequences:
• Developing clear, common definitions of key system components;
• Making local implementation practices consistent with intentions of legislative policy;
• Building parent understanding and support for new practices;
• Creating job‐embedded, sustained professional time for collaboration;
• Understanding the unique needs and approaches of various grade spans or developmental levels, especially within early childhood, the high school level, and the population of students with identified special education needs;
• Developing comprehensive, sustainable learning management systems
• Finding resources to assist with predicted cost increases; and
• Preparing students for post‐secondary systems, specifically college and career readiness
As we continue to learn more about implementation of personalized, proficiency-based education, I think it is important to remember that we are entering new territory. Phase I of this research found that “Once beyond the initial stages of changing belief structures, moral imperatives and school culture, the logistics of rolling out a curriculum with ‘student choice’ and ‘multiple pathways’ was proving very complex and difficult within existing structures of traditional public school ….” This is going to become a constant theme: In order to honor student choice and multiple pathways, schools are going to need autonomy and flexibility to respond to changing needs of students.
Chris Sturgis is Principal of MetisNet, a consulting firm that specializes in supporting foundations and special initiatives in strategy development, coaching and rapid research. She is strategic advisor to the Youth Transition Funders Group and manages the Connected by 25 blog.