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Aurora Institute

Preparing to “Turn the Switch” to a Proficiency-Based Learning System

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Steve Lavoie

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started

SwitchIn an earlier blog, I discussed the implementation of a Proficiency Based Learning System via a “phase in” approach and the unintended consequences of such a plan. Although I referred to the alternative approach as “overnight,” clearly much work happens prior to turning the switch from a traditional to a proficiency-based system. However, it does avoid the pitfalls of a phasing in approach. When you turn the switch:

  • There are no guinea pigs. All stakeholders transition at the same time; no one group is left facing change year after year.
  • The this will go away syndrome disappears because the change is here, now. It’s not going away. Our work then turns to a cycle of continuous improvement of the system.
  • The pilot doesn’t exist. By making the change across the board, the message is sent that “we are confident this is the direction to take” and it will succeed.
  • Apples to oranges, the comparing of proficiency-based and traditional grades, is a natural part of the transition. However, it does not happen via the structure of the implementation.

Preparing to ‘Turn the Switch”

So what are steps that experience teaches us need to be taken prior to making such a significant change? Make no mistake about it, this is second order change. It is not the “band aid” approach to school reform that has been happening for decades. Well-meaning tweaks to a failed system can only take us so far. This change goes well beyond what has been happening within our schools.

  • Establish the need for change. Many resist change, but if we can be clear about why change is needed, many move from being on the fence to being supporters. Whether you use assessment data such as recent PISA scores, the “logical” approach that our schools were originally designed to produce students ready for the Industrial Revolution, or the idea that the jobs we are preparing our students for don’t exist yet…convincing our constituents that change is needed is a vital first step.
  • Create a shared vision by involving representatives for all stakeholders. Involve parents, students, community leaders, and educators in creating a vision of what all want your schools to be and what you want your students to be ready for upon graduation. Given this step, you’ll be surprised as to the vision that stakeholders have for their schools and students. You’ll find more in common than you might expect.
  • Provide professional development for all faculty members. A critical step is providing enough professional development opportunities for all faculty members to ensure a sound philosophical base for a new way of thinking. In some cases, having all professional development workshop days at the start of a new year and dedicating them to establishing a sound philosophical base can be an effective way to enter a full year of planning to turn the switch. Doing so will create a huge critical mass, moving together in the same direction. Trust me, it’s powerful.
  • Plan as much as possible prior to implementation. Things like developing sound curricula, defining proficiency for each standard, developing a viable transcript, writing a supporting School Profile, and other details take time. Develop a “punch list” of structures necessary for implementation. The more you plan, the less you’re going to find yourself having to say “I’m not sure!” Rely on those who have gone before you. While proficiency-based learning systems in one setting may not fit all of your circumstances, others may help you avoid pitfalls that can be difficult to overcome.
  • Decide what issues are critical and that you’ll “go to the wall for.” You will be faced with questions that tie to the traditional system. Expect them and decide ahead of time whether or not you are willing to “die on that hill” prior to the question being asked. Questions relating to GPA, class rank, Top Ten, and honor roll should be anticipated. Your stakeholders may believe they are important components that should be retained. Issues like these feel like trying to fit round peg into a square hole, but they are not critical issues that should interfere with the implementation of the big picture. They can be made to fit your program. Be prepared to give in on some issues but stand firm on the critical ones like your core belief that all students need to demonstrate proficiency on all standards required for graduation. That would be the hill to die on…
  • Turn the switch and enjoy the ride. Have a target date to make the switch and make it public. Momentum, based in a common belief that this change is best for kids, will carry you through your change. Will it be without adjustments, questions, or challenges? Hardly, but you’ll be able to deal with them with a strong philosophical base. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. It’s out there. Good luck.

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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.