The New England Secondary School Consortium’s March conference is becoming a must-go meeting for me – as a place to hear about how educators are talking about their competency-based/mastery-based/proficiency-based systems and to expand my network of educators leading the way. Last March I had the opportunity to talk with Mike Martin, Montpelier Public Schools’ Director of Curriculum & Technology, and Mike McRaith, Principal of Montpelier High School in Vermont. (You can learn about MHS at Edutopia.)
On the Value of Proficiency-Based Learning
Martin explained, “In Vermont, we are focused on two big changes that are deeply connected. We want our students to have more personalized experiences and we want to make sure our students can meet proficiency-based graduation requirements so we’re confident that they’re ready for college and careers. It’s relatively easy to create the personalized learning plans called for in Act 77, but flexible pathways pose challenges relating to equity, and proficiency-based learning is a heavier lift. However, it is also a door to personalization. Proficiency-based learning is the way to make sure that personalized learning plans and experiential learning lead to higher achievement. In our approach, transferable skills provide a common language to define proficiency, both in class and through real-world learning.”
“We had personalized learning plans in Montpelier in the late 1990s, but we hadn’t connected them to student learning in this way. We had created a false divide between personal learning endeavors and academics. Now we are thinking about personalized learning plans and student aspirations in the context of how they can be used to create learning opportunities that engage and motivate students.”
He outlined some of these plans for me. “In the coming year, we are focusing on seven transferable skills – reading, writing, communication, problem-solving, habits of learning, citizenship, and creativity – as the enduring understanding that we want our students to have,” he said. “It is the ultimate UBD. We are building back from graduation to develop the capacity of schools to provide assessments and effective feedback on the transferrable skills.”
“The state created a set of policies that are all around the same work,” he added. “The common theme is building student agency. We want our students to know themselves as learners, to have the skills to be successful learners, and to have opportunities to build the transferable skills all along their path from kindergarten to graduation. At each grade level, students should be able to speak to the questions, Who am I as a reader? Who am I as a communicator? Who am I as a citizen? etc.”
On Making the Transition to Personalized, Proficiency-Based Learning
In co-presenting a session earlier that day, Martin opened the discussion with the question, “Do you have a clear connection between the competencies and the values of your local community? If not, there are going to be risks and certainly lost opportunities.” He explained that if schools focus only on the academic core, they will fail to meet the expectations of their parents and community to have their students prepared for an ever-changing world.
Next year, Montpelier High School will be implementing the transferable skills (called guiding principles in Maine and work study competencies in New Hampshire). McRaith explained that the starting point is the introduction of transferrable skills using Understanding by Design (UBD) principles (Wiggins & McTighe) to translate the graduation requirements. Teachers are being asked to start with one transferable skill, or enduring understanding, within each unit to focus on. For example, it might emphasize organization and evidence in writing in chemistry class.
Martin pointed out that from there, they will then begin to build the framework for the entire district. McRaith explained that at MHS, the development of proficiency-based standards has been more work for those departments that have not organized themselves around standards before. For math and ELA, the Common Core has already generated dialogue among the faculty of what proficiency means at different grade levels.
Martin and McRaith concurred that it is very important to engage parents and the community to discuss what the changes to personalized, proficiency-based learning mean and why it is important to do it. Martin explained, “When we talk in education jargon, when we refer to standards by numbers, we disenfranchise our students, our parents, and our community. We need to be able to speak about these changes in plain English so they can be part of the conversation.” Throughout the year, Montpelier invited the community into the conversation in a four-part series titled The Future of School. In so doing, families and stakeholders had the opportunity to be both early learners of the changes, as well as design partners.
On Student Voice and Personalization
McRaith thinks about personalization as three related elements and opportunities: building a learner identity, showcasing learner excellence, and emphasizing an instructional shift toward responsiveness and flexibility. He explained, “The personalized learning plan can play a dynamic role in helping students build an identity as a learner. But we can’t stop there. We want them to become producers, not just consumers of learning. We have to have ways for students to demonstrate their learning by creating high quality products and continuing on projects until they reach excellence and then share them with authentic audiences. Finally, there is a real opportunity both within the traditional classroom and outside the walls of the building to have learner centered instruction, which means teachers reconsidering their units, content, and skills to focus on. Finally, if students are going to be active learners rather than the school demanding compliance, they are going to have to build their skills and understand how they learn.” That’s why MHS will be focusing their beginning efforts on transferrable skills, deeper learning, and student agency.
Of course, this plan doesn’t always go smoothly. “We thought the students would all really like the personalized learning plan,” said McRaith. “However, quite a few of the tenth graders – the first class to use it – were resistant, saying, ‘Hey, you are schooling up my fun.’ when we pointed out all the learning taking place in their lives outside of school. From a developmental standpoint, it makes sense that teenagers are sometimes resistant to having their schools and communities really asking tough and personal questions. This is a time in their development when they don’t want adults to know what is going on in their lives. These students are also so used to school being transactional. They feel like if they put in their time, punch the clock so to speak, they should get their paycheck, grades, and be on their way. Learning is not necessarily their top priority.” And some students don’t yet see how the PLP can help to ‘fun up their school.’”
He added, “We have to create a culture of reflection in the schools. Universal Design for Learning can be very helpful as we build units so that reflection is an embedded part of the learning experience.” McRaith, who has worked with Angela Duckworth, also emphasized that reflection is an important part of the process of students developing grit and becoming more conscious of what can help them become successful in reaching their goals. “As proficiency-based learning opens up student voice, they will be able to reflect upon the choices they made about content, the amount of practice and effort they put into it, and their choices about demonstrating their learning. Proficiency-based learning will create more learning opportunities for students to build their learning skills.”
On Meeting Students Where They Are and Providing a Robust Education
There are lots of different ways to think about where students are – academically, developmentally, emotionally, etc. As we talked about what personalization means for school design, we talked about students who grow up with the disruption caused by severe poverty and those who have experienced trauma in their lives. Martin emphasized, “Schools need to offer predictability and transparency so that students who are dealing with developmental trauma know what to expect.” I had never thought about this before – can proficiency-based learning, with its emphasis on transparency, consistency, and rapid response to students when they are struggling, become the basis for trauma-informed schools?
We then began to talk about what it means for schools to begin to directly address the issue of students who enter with skills well below grade level. Martin said that in some classes in Montpelier, as many as 25 percent of students may be reading below grade level. Martin emphasized, “It is important to get the best first instruction in elementary school.” McRaith continued, “Students need to build fluency, they need to understand the conceptual ideas, and they need opportunities for application. When we talk about transfer, or applying new learning, fluency is fundamental. Fluency opens the door to everything else. When fundamentals aren’t established, the challenge in helping students learn will be compounded later on.” Students in upper grades who do not have fluency in foundational skills need to the time to build up their fluency.
As we began to talk about teaching, it became clear that the two Mikes were consistently speaking about balanced approaches to instruction. As Martin explained, “We often use too narrow approaches to teach math rather than making sure students can communicate mathematical concepts in different ways. For example, we found that our students did poorly on one item on the NECAP in which the answer was on the left and the problem on the right. They were only familiar with mathematical problems with the answers on the right. They hadn’t yet grasped the concept of mathematical equality, and just thought the equal sign meant put your answer here.” McRaith expanded, “It’s important for teachers to have a common language and one that is precise enough to help them build their instructional strategies and skills in formative assessment so they can identify why a student isn’t understanding something.”
Martin pointed out that one of the pitfalls of proficiency-based learning is too much focus on pace. He explained, “If you focus on pace, it becomes a linear march through the curriculum. When the focus is on speed, it’s easier to fall into the trap of low cognitive demand instead of emphasizing deeper learning.”
McRaith emphasized that it is important to think about documents not as bureaucratic tools but as opportunities to engage a broad set of stakeholders in understanding and helping create the new system. He listed the following as important documents that can be powerful leverage points for engagement:
- Description of the graduation requirements.
- Program of studies or the list of courses with the specific standards that students will be expected to demonstrate within each course. (Note: High schools are using different structures to organize learning. Many are maintaining course structures with specific grade level standards that students will be expected to meet, while others focus more on performance levels and courses that are either highly personalized or have been structured around the needs of students.)
- Report cards will get everyone’s attention and will have impact on instruction. It will reinforce teacher’s organizing units around standards and assessments.
- Transcript changes can start to focus attention on what students know and can do and their strengths, even if they have been developed out of school. They can begin to tell the story of the student’s interest, learning experiences, and aspirations.
- A New School profile will force the school to describe their pedagogy, what they want for students to learn and be able to do, the learning opportunities, and data to describe performance in a personalized, proficiency-based structure. Martin suggested that writing this early in the process can actually help clarify the vision for your school.
Martin explained that the program of study can be an important tool for making the shift to proficiency-based learning. He explained, “We aren’t asking teachers what they are going to cover but what skills students will have when they leave their class. It is the difference between covering standards or uncovering learning. We are looking at the learning now and want to know what students can do with their new learning, not just the content covered. This is a high standard for a teacher and for a school to reach.”
Martin pointed out that it is essential to open up conversations with educators about teaching and learning, and that some of them can become very sticky discussions. What do you believe about teaching and learning? What are our beliefs about formative assessment? What do we think about retakes? Should we use zeroes or incompletes in grading? What are our beliefs about teaching the habits of learning and are they within the scope of what we think of as teaching?
McRaith is starting to lead this conversation in MHS. They are using Thomas Guskey’s book On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting and the article Five Obstacles to Grading Reform as the catalyst for discussion as they consider shifting from normative to criterion-referenced grading.
He explained that one of the big shifts from high school is to let go of the idea that educators have to do the work of college admissions directors. “High schools do not have to pre-select for colleges. Our job is to get every student over that finish line.” McRaith is also hopeful that with more transparency in grading, the equity issues embedded in the variability of grading by different teachers will begin to dissipate. “To ensure equity and fairness, it is important to have uniform expectations and values. The grading policies reflect our values and need to become a school-wide set of expectations that are applied consistently.” He explained that a well-designed grading system should be able to answer the question, “How would I know that this student is making progress?”
He also added that grading is about the culture of a school. “Students see grading as transactional – I did what you asked, so give me my grade. The grade is a form of currency about compliance. Grading has become remuneration rather than learning. We need to have grading practices that are meaningful and motivating to students.”
McRaith emphasized that implementation requires looking at the structures and practices that support the student perspective as well as the teacher perspective. Students will need opportunity for exhibitions and periodic reflections on how they are meeting their goals, personalized learning plans that are connected to their academics, and opportunity for community-based learning. Teachers need to have time for collaborative work within PLCs, peer-led professional development, instructional coaches, and teacher evaluations that reflect teaching within a personalized, proficiency-based system. In their session at NESSC, the Mikes had facilitated a discussion that compared the Danielson model that is rooted in the traditional models to the four-part structure of cognitive, interpersonal, instructional, and intrapersonal skills outlined in report by JFF and CCSSO Educator Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Teaching. (FYI you might want to check out Charlotte Danielson on Rethinking Teacher Evaluation.)
On Organizations and Networks that Are Helpful in Making the Transition to Personalized, Proficiency-Based Schools
I always ask this question when I interview people, as it helps others know who might be available and also helps intermediary/technical assistance providers across the country to find other partners to strengthen the system of professional learning and technical assistance support. Great Schools Partnership and its networks, the League of Innovation Schools and New England Secondary Schools Coalition, were at the top of the list. Martin said that it was a big investment of time to participate in the GSP’s training (two days per month for six months) and it definitely paid off. He also pointed out, “The state’s decision to organize training for districts has been very effective in creating a common language for us to learn from each other.” So far, about half of the school districts in VT have participated in the trainings.
The Rowland Foundation is also making a difference. Martin and McRaith both raved about the how the Rowland Fellowship is changing the educational landscape in Vermont. Martin declared, “The Rowland Fellowships are percolating new ideas and exploring how they can work in Vermont.” They explained that the Rowland Foundation is committed to changing culture and creating a climate for change through bottom-up strategies. Martin and McRaith are just two examples of the fifty fellows to date that have benefited from the semester- or year-long sabbaticals supported with flexible funds that can be used for substitutes, prototyping, visiting schools, research, or internships. Each year, a conference brings in some of the most influential thinkers in education, including Sir Kenneth Robinson, Tony Wagner, Dennis Littky, Angela Duckworth, and Jonathon Kozol. This year’s theme of the conference is equity.
What Books Are they Finding Helpful in Making the Transition?
Mindset, of course, as well as Eric Jensen’s Teaching With Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do about It, which explains how we can design schools if we hold poverty in mind. I instantly put the book on my own reading list – can you imagine taking this opportunity to use the competency-based structure to allow enough flexibility that we can redesign public schools around ensuring low-income children thrive? Expeditionary Learning’s Leaders of Their Own Learning was suggested as well. EL is definitely one of the organizations I’ve been hearing about that can help schools create the culture and practices for student agency to take old. So I’m adding that to my list as well.