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Aurora Institute

RSU Students Now Proficiency-Based

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Gary Chapin

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

School District RSU #14
School District RSU #14 Web

This post was originally published in the RSU14 Maine Fall Newsletter.

The students who are entering kindergarten this year will be working until around the year 2100.

Think about it. Did your head just explode?

In a very real and somewhat scary sense, the future that we’re preparing our kids for hasn’t been invented yet. Employers and colleges throughout Maine and throughout the country say they need graduates who not only know specific things – the content of our classes – they need graduates who know how to learn independently; graduates who are active citizens; graduates who can persevere; graduates who work collaboratively; graduates who can approach problems with both critical and creative thinking; and graduates who can communicate effectively with different audiences.

And it isn’t just some graduates. It’s every graduate.

Every Kid: John Davis, an educator in Maine, puts it very simply, “We are here for every kid.” He says it, rightly, as a moral argument: we have an obligation to every child in our care.

That means something different than it used to. In the past, schools were here to help sort kids and send them off to their particular professions. Some would go to college, some to skilled professions, and many to the mills. That was enough. Schools today have a different mission. Because of conditions in Maine and throughout the world, we need every student succeeding to the highest level possible. RSU 14 is committed to that. It’s necessary for our community, and it’s necessary for our kids. We act on this commitment in a number of ways.

Standards: RSU 14 adopted the Maine Learning Results (MLRs) as its set of curriculum standards many years ago. The MLRs have clear, rigorous standards in all eight content areas. They also have the Guiding Principles, which cover the “soft” skills listed above, communication, critical and creative thinking, collaboration, etc. By adopting these standards and crafting our curriculum and instruction around them we clearly define the targets for our kids and ourselves – because this isn’t just about every kid getting there, it’s about our obligation to help every kid get there.

Instruction Geared to Motivated Learners: So, we have clear, rigorous standards for all students, but every student is, in fact, unique. Any teacher will tell you, we have to meet the learners where they are. A standard may represent one goal for all students, but there can be many paths to get to that goal. Our work with student-centered learning practices shows us that classrooms can be reimagined to serve many students with individual needs. This may involve restructuring schedules, groupings, and team teaching. It may involve the development of an intervention system that provides kids the support they need exactly when they need it rather than waiting for summer school, or some such time. It may involve training new instructional methods that have met with success around the state and country, instructional methods that allow students voice in choice in how they will learn what they need to learn. It may involve the adoption of new assessment techniques, allowing students to demonstrate their learning in ways that fully challenge them and reflect the real world.

We know that students – like all human beings – learn best when they have a voice in how they will learn, and choice about the path they will take. When learning is relevant to the student, the student will invariably achieve greater success. Think about the high school student who seems “incapable” of persevering at a difficult task, but who spends their weekends rebuilding a car engine or building a boat. The problem isn’t that the student can or cannot persevere; it is that the two tasks mean different things to the student. One is relevant to the student, the other is not.

Technology: The idea of structuring classrooms and designing our instruction to attend to the individual needs of all learners is not a new one. Educators talked about it at the turn of the 20th century. But it’s only now that we can actually do it on a scale that helps all students, not just a select few. This is because of the robust, vibrant level of technology that RSU 14 – and all of Maine – has at our collective fingertips. It helps in two ways.

First, the level of organization required for student-centered systems is genuinely demanding. One reason student-centered learning, as a system, hasn’t been implemented in the past is because, as the saying goes, “it would crash under the weight of its own paper.” Our technology allows us to track student achievement, report out in a timely manner, and actually store student work (for portfolios, for example) with an ease that has never been possible.

Second, the technology available to our students allows them unprecedented access to information and an amazing opportunity to develop deep knowledge and skills. We can address the needs of individual students at all levels because we have the information resources to do so. Combine this with attention to the Guiding Principles – especially collaboration; students will not be spending their days simply staring at a computer – and we can begin to see the possibilities opening up for our kids.

Facilitating Learning: It is necessary that students become co-creators of their own learning. Teachers as facilitators or coaches will guide and inform that experience. Great teachers have never been just experts in their content area; they are experts in how to learn. By gearing instruction to the individual student, by providing multiple ways for kids to learn and show what they learn, by reporting out in a way that documents achievement of the standards, and – most importantly – by building close relationships with the kids, the great teachers of RSU 14 will help every kid become the sort of learner they need to be, and the sort of learner our community needs them to be.

That is our commitment.

Gary Chapin is a Senior Associate at the Center for Collaborative Education.