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Aurora Institute

Changing our Bumper-Sticker Message: My Student is More Proficient Than Your Student!

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Diane Smith

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Engage Community

On a recent walk, I was stopped by my neighbor who had a complaint about her son’s end-of-year report card.  “See this,” she said, pointing to the bumper sticker on her car that proudly declared her son an honor roll student at Olympia Middle School.  “It’s a lie; it doesn’t match the information from his teachers about what he knows and can do.  I don’t understand.  What should I do?”  Her voice sounded pleading and I could sense a rising frustration with the public school system, a beloved institution that I had participated in and protected for over thirty-six years.

We have no chance at making strategic and systemic changes in our education system if we don’t bring parents along on the change journey.  And, the changes that occur when districts embrace proficiency-based practices (competency-based/standards-based) go against the traditional picture of education that parents experienced and daily use as their frame of reference.  Our parents were batch educated, moving through a textbook from cover to cover with classmates who shared birthdays that put them all at the same grade level.  (See Sir Kenneth Robinson)  Their students, on the other hand, are allowed to progress without any barriers traditionally affixed to the calendar, the clock, or the curriculum.  This means that a fourth grader might be working at a second-grade reading level and, at the same time, be working on fifth or sixth grade math standards.  Or, a high school student may earn credit for learning experiences that occur outside of the traditional school year.  Parents chased points to reach artificial levels of excellence; their students are evaluated against descriptions of proficiency or higher, knowing exactly what they need to know and do in order to be successful.  It’s no wonder that parents have such a hard time accepting some of the new changes that proficiency-based teaching and learning bring.

So how do we serve the parents like my neighbor who want to be involved in their student’s education but don’t understand the changes that are occurring?  Some say it will take a minimum of three generations before the changes we are proposing become the expected classroom culture.  Regardless of whether it takes a single school year or several generations, what we need to remember is that we are on this course for a long time.  We will need to reeducate parents on the new expectations that we have for students over and over and over again.  We should include parents on report card design committees and Site Councils; we should structure separate parent learning communities where they can hear from students and teachers about the positive impact that these changes can have on student achievement.  Most importantly, we need to be logical and consistent our messaging.  Here are a few of the questions that deserve clear, parent-friendly answers:

  • What do we expect students to know and do?
  • How will we help students meet and exceed these expectations?
  • If students already know it, how will we enrich and accelerate their learning?
  • How will we clearly measure and report student learning?
  • How do these practices support or conflict with what parents know as “school”?

When we take on proficiency-based teaching and learning, we take on a commitment to be fair, collaborative and clear with our parent community.  After all, people like my neighbor just want us to start telling the truth about student learning.

See the Competency-based Pathways wiki for the rubric for how students can be engaged in their own learning.

Diane Smith is a life-long teacher. Her 34-year public school experience spans instruction at the elementary, middle, high school and college levels. An expert in the fields of curriculum and instruction, she shared her talents as a teacher, alternative school principal and Director of Curriculum for the Greater Albany Public School District in Albany, Oregon. Diane used proficiency-based teaching and learning as a teacher, while also working as a proficiency training coach for Oregon’s Proficiency-based Admissions Standards System (PASS). She is the author of It’s About Time: A Proficiency-based Teaching & Learning Framework, currently being used by districts and classroom teachers as a self-reflection workbook. Diane has been providing professional development in proficiency-based teaching and learning for the Business Education Compact since 2007 and has held the position of Director of Teaching & Learning Initiative for the organization since her public school retirement in 2010.