Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Maine: At the Forefront of Proficiency-Based Learning

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Pilots and Innovation Zones

AutumnA few months ago, I had the opportunity to do a road trip through Maine to visit seven districts and one university (scroll to the bottom for links). Just as the leaves were bursting into reds and oranges (and I even saw what I might call magenta!), it felt as if district after district was bursting with new practices and ideas to improve student learning through proficiency-based systems. Here is a summary of the trip:

On the Forefront of Proficiency-Based Learning

Really and truly, I think Maine is going to become proficiency-based. They have a very strong foundation based on helping students be successful – not just focusing on flexible pacing. Most of the schools I visited had a schoolwide approach for students to be self-directed in the classroom. They are walking the talk at the state level. They are working collaboratively. They are trying to figure out how to help all of their students be fully prepared for lifelong learning. (Well, we have to see about this. The legislature is considering a bill to only have students demonstrate proficiency in math and ELA and two areas selected by students.)

In fact, I’d say that they might be leading the nation in terms of districts converting to personalized, proficiency-based learning (PBL). New Hampshire and Vermont are putting into place very strong systems of support and the policy infrastructure needed for competency-based education and learning to be sustainable. If Maine can stay steady through this period of rising tension to increase innovation and responsiveness to students, it is likely that they will see a rapidly expanding stream of high school graduates who have the self-directed lifelong learning skills that will change the course of their lives and the economic strength of the state. Eventually, Maine’s Department of Education will want to re-design the policies and structures to support and sustain PBL.

I’m sure there are districts in Maine that are not thrilled with the idea of a state-legislated proficiency-based diploma. For example, one of the districts I visited described their motivation as complying with state policy rather than doing what was best for kids. Yet, as we talked more, it was clear that they were finding substantial value in many of the transitional steps and were bringing on a strong team of people who already understood many of the elements of PBL. Generally, they thought PBL was a good idea, just not one they would have done on their own.

There are also growing concerns that districts are not going to innovate enough in time to help every student meet the graduation requirements in all eight domains by 2018. This has caused legislators to try to ease up on the expectations. It will be important for Maine to find solutions that continue to strengthen schools and motivate students and not fall under the wheel of the blanket statement that it is “practically impossible to get every student to become proficient.”

The Reasons Maine is Making Headway

What’s the reason Maine is making such headway? First, there was a convergence of three efforts that built upon each other to produce a strong shared vision:

  1. Districts started to convert to proficiency-based learning on their own through the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning (there are now several such collaboratives, including the Northern Maine Education Collaborative);
  2. The Department of Education set the tone and demonstrated an adaptive leadership strategy when the then-Commissioner, Steve Bowen, traveled through the state on a listening campaign. Several people remarked, “He really listened”; and,
  3. The state legislature had the courage to set expectations for graduation and introduce the proficiency-based diploma with the passage of LD1422.

Second, I think it has been very powerful that Maine has advanced a comprehensive understanding of what students need for their transition into young adulthood (although it may also create a bit of stumbling block, it’s not an obstacle – just something that has to be figured out as described below). The guiding principles that students should be self-directed, lifelong learners and creative, practical, problem-solvers are considered equal in importance to the eight academic domains including the arts, career development, and world languages.

Third, three technical assistance providers have each played key roles. Reinventing Schools Coalition was brought in by the state to support the first set of districts converting to proficiency-based learning. This was instrumental in introducing the new set of values that drive proficiency-based learning, establishing the distributive leadership needed for creating empowering organizations, and preparing teachers for designing and managing personalized classrooms. (If you are interested in these practices, you might want to read blogs by Bill Zima and Courtney Belolan.) Another powerful force is Bea McGarvey, a resident of Maine. She helps educators envision what customized, or highly personalized, classroom practices look like and build the skills they need. Finally, Great Schools Partnership, also based in Maine, has partnered with the Department of Education to develop supports to districts, including exemplar graduation standards. They are now providing support to districts across the state.

Fourth, the Department of Education has walked the talk in so many ways, including their willingness to reflect publicly. For example, the Department of Education created a series of case studies to allow districts to learn from each other. The legislature asked Maine Education Policy Research Institute to study and report back on progress in implementation. They also created a self-assessment tool to support districts. Thus, Maine has created a culture of reflection and learning upon which proficiency-based learning can be developed. In addition, they responded to the concern of districts that they needed more time by asking them to submit a Confirmation of Readiness or an Extension Application describing what was in place and their timelines for making the transition to a proficiency-based diploma. With an eye toward transparency, these documents were then placed online. The Department of Education is essentially using the same practices that teachers would use in supporting students to take ownership and make progress in their learning.

Fifth, in every district I visited, there wasn’t just one exceptional leader – there were several. All of the educators I met with want to do what’s best for kids. The educators in Maine are the primary engine for change.

The Proficiency-Based Diploma: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Maine is going to have to tap into their courage and creativity to resolve the tension building around the proficiency-based diploma. There are still a lot of questions about it, as well concern on the part of educators that they aren’t going to have everyone at the level of proficiency in time. Legislators may be trying to ease the tension, but in fact this is a huge opportunity.

First, Maine could benefit a lot from tapping into their own expert educators to learn from each other. Schools I visited had a sturdy foundation of transparent learning targets and some level of voice and choice. However, I wouldn’t say they were examples of excellence in tapping into all that we know about what works for kids. Within Maine there are lots and lots of examples of people and schools that have great expertise with one piece of the puzzle or another. They just need to put it all together.

Second, this situation opens the door to talk about what a system would look like to make sure every student reaches proficiency. Districts and schools in Maine are still maintaining many of the traditional operations and practices (as is true for most other districts that make the transition). Now is a perfect time to see if any of those could be opened up for more innovation and responsiveness to students.

Can We Meet Students Where They Are?

Even with their focus on proficiency-based learning and the investments in devices in the classroom, most classrooms are still teaching all students at grade level curriculum. I didn’t hear as much about grouping and regrouping or more flexible scheduling so that students could work at performance levels without getting trapped into a lower track. Teachers and principals mentioned that they would like to do this more, but a combination of traditional practices and state accountability assessments are holding this practice in place. Teachers explained to me that it was only fair to “cover the standards” that the students would be tested on in the spring even if they knew the students didn’t have the prerequisite skills to become proficient.

The problem of course is that students get to ninth grade and the clock starts ticking for graduation. In one district, there was some healthy tension, not yet turning into productive solutions, between the elementary school principals and the secondary principals about students not having adequate skills. It’s a murky issue when we are only using proficiency in grade level standards as a way of talking about achievement. Most districts had not yet reached the point of being able to talk about students’ performance levels and growth.

Improving Instruction

Based on my visits, I would say many districts are making headway in putting into place the structure of proficiency-based learning. However, they are not yet using it as effectively as possible to drive instructional improvement and innovation.

District and school leaders raised a number of issues with me about where they see room for growth in their schools in terms of instruction. These included moving beyond the single academic courses into interdisciplinary ones, creating more opportunities for deeper learning, developing stronger efforts to use habits of work and develop the guiding practices, clarifying what it means to reach a Level 4, and rethinking honors. There was also plenty of discussion on how to make sure teachers know the absolutely best instructional practices and how to build capacity around assessment literacy and performance-based assessments.

These are huge issues, and if districts and schools aren’t making progress on these, then I sure do hope the legislature keeps the pressure of the proficiency-based diploma. It’s a big undertaking to move to the proficiency-based structure, which can require one to three years to get right. The next step, usually beginning in the first year of implementation, is for teachers to realize the ways they need to improve their instruction and assessment so that students are getting the type of instructional support that will lead them to proficiency time and time again. The third wave, based on my visits with schools around the country, is to begin to seek more inquiry-based, project-based and applied learning opportunities to ensure students are developing higher order skills. This often requires schools to re-think all the traditional practices of scheduling, how learning opportunities are organized, and engaging more with community partners.

Making Progress with IT

I would have said three years ago it wasn’t worth sticking with the big SIS providers like Infinite Campus and Power School. However, during my travels in Maine, I heard repeatedly that they are on board and have adjusted to include standards-based courses, grade-books, and reporting. As such, they should be commended! However, they and most of the new products on the market for K12 still don’t get the idea of student-centered profiles that can tell a story of a student over time, not within a course or a semester. Hopefully more of these vendors will “get it” pretty soon so our districts will have the information they need to know students’ performance levels, their pace of learning, if they are on track toward graduation and, if not, what the learning trajectory or plan is for them to get a proficiency-based diploma.

A new issue I heard about is that even though products are creating capacity to monitor the guiding principles or habits of work, they are doing so in a way that assumes they remain the same from kindergarten through high school. This is a problem, as habits of work and learning need to be developmental. Professionalism may have a lot of meaning for a senior but not a kindergartener. Vice versa, pays attention might be a huge stretch for a little one but is belittling to a seventeen-year-old. In addition, schools may select different ones based on the needs of their students, community, and school design.

So we are definitely making progress, but our IT vendors, please, please, please figure out a way to monitor student growth on performance levels over time so we can really track progress and pace! Standards-based is not student-centered!

Good Resources on Maine’s Process

Maine Road Trip Series

Casco Bay

Deer Isle-Stonington


Wells High School

Noble High School

Biddeford School District

University of Maine at Presque Isle

Northern Maine Education Collaborative