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Aurora Institute

Will Maine Stay the Course?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

MaineAyyy! Maine legislature has a bill to reduce the expectations of high school graduation from meeting all standards in all eight domains to only meeting the standards in math and ELA + two domains selected by the student. As I discussed earlier, the original policy is creating tension in Maine; however, this is a swing way too far the other direction, as it allows students to not have any expectations in the other four domains. At least that’s how I understand it.

I’ve received a number of emails regarding this reconsideration of the graduation requirements. It certainly feels like we need more conversation about how we can make sense of proficiency-based graduation requirements that will create meaningful diplomas, provide students with the skills they need for their transitions into their adult lives, and not penalize those students who might be bumped around by the transition. I think what is needed is a facilitated dialogue with people from different perspectives and who are creative (as in can unlock themselves from assumptions and build off each other’s ideas) to talk through what meaningful policy regarding proficiency-based diplomas might look like.

In the meantime, I’ll share what is zipping around in my head regarding this issue. These are just initial ideas and certainly do not take into consideration all of the work that it takes to move ideas and legislation within a state.

We Need to Believe that Our Children and Our Educators Can Learn, and Fully Support Them in This. No matter what, we always need to believe in ourselves and that we can learn with the right supports and with extra effort (that’s the growth mindset, right?). It’s important to frame any policy question so that we ask, What would it take to get all of our students proficient in all domains? rather than start with the disabling position that “it’s practically impossible” to get all students to proficiency. We can’t give up before we even get started.

Tension is Not Always Bad. When Tension Leads to Creative Tension and Innovation, it is a Very Good Thing. I was trained as a policy wonk, and tension makes me crazy. I always want to fix it. And then, while at the Mott Foundation, I had the good fortune to meet incredibly skilled community organizers such as Ernie Cortez, Scott Reed, Steve Kest, Mary Dailey, and so many others who explained to me, over and over, that creating tension can lead to creative tension, which brings new faces to the table, and that a sense of urgency produces new solutions.

Maine’s graduation expectations are creating tension. High schools are still time-based – as one educator told me in Maine, “the clock starts ticking the minute students enter ninth grade.” Of course, the urge is to release it and to make it go away. However, I’d say keep that tension for right now because you want to hear the best innovative ideas about what could be done differently. Are there any schools not scared about the new requirements because they have been putting into place strategies that are working? Who has been the best at getting their low-income, special education, and ELL students ready for a proficiency-based graduation? What are they doing differently? What would superintendents and principals like to do if they could?

Get Some Facts Before Saying “current standards are ‘practically impossible’ for many students to meet.” We are in a difficult place. We are shedding the assumptions, structures, and policies of a traditional system shaped by a fixed mindset, racism, and preparing students for agricultural and manufacturing economies, where there is an underlying belief that some students shouldn’t learn, some students can’t learn, and some students are college-going material. And we are in the process of learning how to organize our education system around a growth mindset, equity, and an ever-changing global, technology rich economy.

There are two types of facts we need to collect to inform any transitional proficiency-based diploma policy. First, there are the questions that will get help us understand the landscape of the problem:

  • How many students are predicted to not graduate with the new requirements within four years? What if they did a fifth year, could they graduate?
  • How far away are they from graduating – i.e., what performance levels are they currently able to demonstrate in each of the domains?

If districts have students performing at tenth grade level or below even though they are in in eleventh or twelfth grade, then districts need to create interventions. It would be a really bad idea for the state to back off the core concept of the idea of proficiency-based learning and graduate students who don’t have even the most minimum level of skills. Maybe not every student is going to make it all the way to the twelfth performance level, but that doesn’t mean students should graduate with huge gaps either.

The other questions I would ask are about benchmarking: Which districts and schools are doing the best in helping CTE students, ELL students, students with disabilities, students who are low-income, and minority students? If you look at the growth they are helping students to make, it would establish benchmarks for other districts to meet. Before we say students aren’t able to meet the standards, let’s make sure districts are using the very best strategies available to help them.

And while I’m asking questions of districts, I’d want to get a feel for how many students enter ninth grade each year with below fourth grade skills – fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh, with eighth grade skills and above considered on level. This is definitely the place where districts need to figure out how to do things differently right now. Districts have much more time to work with students when they are younger and at their initial entry into high school than when students are in the final months of their education.

States Have a Critical Role in This Transition Process. State departments of education have an essential role in this transitional process. No one can mandate the change to proficiency-based diploma by policy alone. As we know, strong leadership is needed in the state education agencies to manage the process of co-designing new systems, help coordinate networking and support to districts so they can learn from each other, and facilitate the difficult points of tension that will arise in building the new system – all while driving toward 100 percent reliability that eliminates the weaknesses producing diplomas that have little meaning.

From my home in New Mexico, it’s hard to tell if the Governor of Maine crowning himself Commissioner of Education means it is such an important position that he himself wants to do the job or whether it means he thinks so little of it that he can do it while also managing all the other policy issues confronting Maine. The legislature plays an important role in making sure that the SEA or, if the state government is not in a position to do so, an intermediary to help address all the policy, structural, operational, and district support that is needed.

Get Some Flexibility. As I understand it, Maine has never embraced the extended graduation rate. Well, now’s the time. Let students and their parents know they can keep learning. There is obviously a cost to this, so instead of always assuming the funds would be directed to another year or two, students can spend summers and Saturdays working to build the specific skills they need. This will reduce some of the pressure and hopefully encourage innovation.

Brainstorm all the Transitional Graduation Requirements and Build as Much Consensus around Policy Design Principles. Maine took a position in designing the proficiency-based diploma as “meets all standards in all eight domains.” They should be commended for focusing on ensuring that students are prepared for lifelong learning, not just math and ELA. Is there some way they can hold expectations that all students will be prepared to have choices after high school while still offering some flexibility? I actually love this idea of students having some voice and choice about what they want to achieve by the time they graduate – and perhaps there should be another domain that can include the skills students develop that might be outside of the standards set by the districts.

A couple of ideas (and I’m not sure about any of them) to consider:

  • Graduation Level Floors for Each Domain: Make sure students meet a minimum floor set for each of the domains. It can be different for different domains. One of the brilliant things Chugach School District did is set different performance levels for graduation expectations for different domains. Not every graduation requirement needs to be established at performance level 12. Perhaps some domains might consider performance level 10 as the floor. Of course there has to be agreement over what proficiency means at all these performance levels, and states have a role to play in helping districts generate a shared understanding on how to credential those performance levels. In this way, all students meet a minimum, and then you could safely say there are a few core areas that everyone will meet along with a couple of options to get there. I really do love the idea of students selecting a few areas they want to excel in.
  • Opt-In to Reach Proficiency: If you have a floor of standards, districts can provide a diploma based on credit hours and then invite students who did not meet twelfth grade standards to come back for more schooling during the summer, evenings, additional years, or perhaps through an online, competency-based virtual school. They could even opt-in on those subjects they believe are most important. Those who are willing to take their chances without having the full set of skills may do so.
  • Diplomas that Tell You Performance Levels: In the time-based system, diplomas just tell you that you did your time in high school. Again, assuming there are floors, let diplomas then indicate what performance level a student reached by the time they graduated high school.
  • Let Educators Teach Students at Performance Levels, Not Firehose Them with Grade Level Curriculum: Just about everywhere I went in Maine last fall, educators talked about wishing they could teach students at their performance level rather than trying to figure out how to teach them grade level curriculum they aren’t ready for. It was a combination of the state accountability exams and traditional practices holding the system in place. We don’t know how much of a difference this is going to make, but right now, the competency-based schools that seem to get the best results have made the shift to meeting students where they currently are.

Have the Honest Conversations with Parents and Students Right Now. One of the things I’ve discovered in Maine as well as other states that are transitioning to proficiency-based learning is that schools are still delivering instruction based on grade level (based on the age of students) rather than performance levels. This masks what students are really able to do. It’s really important for students and parents and, of course, teachers to know whether their ninth grade students are performing at sixth grade math and eighth grade reading or eighth grade math and tenth grade reading. How else can a student know what it is going to take to reach proficiency? Transparency (you could call it accountability or even just plain honesty) is one of the core elements of proficiency-based learning. Thus, districts can make a huge difference right now in simply making sure every teacher and every student knows where they are on their path toward graduation-level proficiency. Again, it will create tension. A tension that will certainly lead to extra effort from students and new opportunities for educators to put into place what is best instructionally for students.

Don’t Lower the Bar. Under pressure, systems look for ways to expel the tension. A natural way is going to be for schools, teachers, and students to say students are proficient when they aren’t.

We think that the calibration, the holding a shared understanding of what proficiency looks like, is one of the “beams” of the new house (using the metaphor recommended by communication experts) we are building. If we let what we mean by proficiency for any standard get wobbly, if we can’t be totally confident of what it means when a district says a student has demonstrated a certain performance level or grade level skill, then we are right back to the place that led to NCLB in the first place.

Tomorrow I’ll publish the highlights of my travels through Maine. I was going to publish it a bit later after I did a few more telephone interviews. However, given that all eyes are on Maine right now, I’ll share what I’ve learned. As always, your insights are always greatly appreciated.

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