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Aurora Institute

Kids in the Pipeline During Transition to Proficiency-Based Systems

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Steve Lavoie

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

PipelineI have made the case for “turning the switch” to a proficiency-based model versus “phasing in” a new approach to educating our youth. I have discussed the preparations that I believe are necessary to successfully implement a proficiency-based system. How could I have missed this!? I expected our proficiency-based model to be so much better for our students than the traditional approach, yet many of our learners are struggling. What’s going on and why? What can be done? With hindsight being 20/20, what should we have done differently with our implementation?

What’s Going On and Why?

The jump to expecting students to demonstrate proficiency on clearly identified targets based on national standards is a step up for all, perhaps a bigger step for others. The expectation that students demonstrate proficiency on all standards assigned to a course is a significant change from a traditional system where a student need only score 70 percent (or less) to achieve credit and move on. Of course, we can look at this issue from a different view and state that students have been allowed to move on without 30 to 40 percent of the knowledge, concepts, and skills necessary for success at the next level. Many of us refer to this as the “Swiss Cheese Effect” of what our traditional high school model has allowed for…generations.

Now that we have made the transition to our proficiency-based model, we have students in high school whose clock is ticking toward graduating with their class. They are the kids in the pipeline without the foundational skills required to be able to demonstrate proficiency in required topics. We need to remember that students come to the system with eight to eleven years of “Swiss cheese.” The pressure on learners and our learning facilitators to fill holes in learning and complete graduation requirements is extraordinary. This, to use Chris Sturgis’ analogy, is one of the “elephants in the room” that needs our attention…in a hurry.

What Can be Done?

The curricula in our proficiency-based system are organized by levels. Level 3 performance means a student has demonstrated proficiency in specific knowledge/concept or skill. Level 2 is the foundational knowledge that needs to be acquired in order to be able to demonstrate proficiency.

Our learning facilitators have quickly realized that our learners, who are struggling beyond what is expected, have weak foundational skills. Grouping and regrouping students based on their foundational needs is a critical aspect of attacking this issue. As students acquire the skills needed to approach proficiency, they need to be regrouped to receive the direct instruction and practice necessary to perform at a higher taxonomy level.

The methods of direct instruction need to be examined. If students have weak foundational knowledge, we can correctly assume that it has been taught and struggling learners have not acquired the knowledge. The days of I taught it, they didn’t get it have long needed to disappear. Using the same approaches to the teaching of foundational skills that were unsuccessful the first time are likely to be unsuccessful again. Using the same approach but doing so louder and slower has failed our learners. We need to reach into our tool kit and use different methods to present our lessons. Yes, this does and should feel like the approach utilized in a special services model.

Time becomes more and more critical for kids in the pipeline. We need to be more innovative in how we use our time during the school day and beyond the school day to develop opportunities to attack basic skills. Before school, after school, Saturdays are all options that need to be put to use to intervene on the learners’ behalf…whatever it takes. Content-based interventions, staffed by content specific educators that focus on nothing but foundational skills, need to be part of the solution. One could make the argument that all students need to revisit foundational skills more routinely than normal but that is another “elephant in the room” we should visit at some point.

We need to consider breaking down the compartmentalization created by a traditional approach to organizing our curricula. All too often, we take the approach of identifying concepts and skills normally associated with a course. While this is usually done in order to develop a transcript that looks traditional, it can tend to separate skills that could easily be grouped together. There are times when a scheduling sequence violates the natural connection between topics. Presenting topics in their natural sequence is more time-efficient and learners see the connectedness of topics, which they fail to see otherwise.

We need to clearly define “proficient” as it pertains to the skill/concept. In the early days of implementation, you may find that one of the issues you face is whether or not the assessments being used to determine proficiency are targeting the appropriate taxonomy level. Typically, assessments designed miss their mark by either targeting a taxonomy that is too high, resulting in extended time needed to meet proficiency, or too low, resulting in students moving on without truly being proficient and creating another hole in their learning. Periodically revisiting proficiency makes perfect sense and needs to be more of a routine than it is currently.

Hindsight Being 20/20

As I reflect on the implementation of our proficiency-based learning system, it occurs to me that we had options that we should have considered as we prepared to “turn the switch.”

The preparation to transition to a totally different way of thinking and restructuring our learning systems takes time. Visions need to be established, curricula need to be rewritten, scheduling issues need to be addressed, assessments need revision, and there is an extraordinary amount of minutia that need to be addressed. Yes, this takes a great deal of time.

The question now has become, what should we have been doing with our students to prepare them for the transition? How could we have missed it? While we were preparing ourselves for our new model, we should have taken that time and spent it preparing our learners for the increased rigor by identifying their weaknesses and providing remediation as indicated by the assessment data available. Imagine, a year of remediation designed to fill the holes before the kids are in the pipeline. Could we have prevented the dilemma created as we transitioned to a proficiency-based model? I would argue that we may not have filled all of those holes, but we could have addressed a significant number of them for many students, therefore taking some of the pressure off when the clock starts ticking.

Being an educator whose roots are firmly grounded in a middle level philosophy, I always fought the idea that the role of middle schools was to prepare our students for high school. In reality, it’s the mission of all educators to prepare learners for the next step, whatever that may be. Perhaps part of a middle school proficiency-based model should be a focus on identifying the holes in learning and remediating them before the clock starts ticking toward graduation. We do our learners a disservice by not doing so.

It Will Work

I am more than convinced that expecting students to demonstrate proficiency in knowledge, concepts, and skills before moving on to what awaits them will create a much more successful high school graduate than we have been producing with our traditional approach. Over time, the proficiency approach will fill these holes. We should not have been surprised that learners with holes in their learning have struggled. As you prepare to turn the switch, prepare them too!

We’ll get the kids in the pipeline to the stage to give them their diploma. With extraordinary learners and extraordinary educators that recognize their needs…we’ll get them there.

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Steve Lavoie is the principal at Richmond Middle/High School in RSU2 Maine. He previously served as the principal at Hall-Dale Middle/High School in the same district. RSU2 is a PreK-12 proficiency-based school district.