working toward proficiency

Maine went all in on ‘proficiency-based learning’ — then rolled it back. What does that mean for the rest of the country?

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

When Ted Finn first heard about the new way of running a high school, he was excited.

Forget students squeaking by with Cs and moving on without truly understanding math or biology. Throw out the idea that a student has to pass a collection of classes to earn a diploma — instead, tell them what essential skills they need. Instead of letting a bad test grade derail a student, give them multiple chances to demonstrate what they know.

“The idea of having an identified set of standards and expectations that would be put out there, so that … everybody would know that if you had earned credit in, say, an Algebra I class, you did in fact meet specific identified standards — at first I was thinking, this is great,” said Finn, a longtime Maine educator and the principal of Gray-New Gloucester High School, about 20 miles from Portland.

For the last several years, he has been part of an ambitious experiment to take that approach, known as proficiency-based education, statewide. In 2012, Maine passed a law changing how high school diplomas were awarded. To earn one, students would have to demonstrate that they had mastered material in eight subjects. Advocates said this would better prepare students to compete in the future economy.

But the latest developments suggest that Maine may become a cautionary tale rather than the successful proof point advocates had hoped for.

Across the state, districts struggled to define what “proficiency” meant and teachers struggled to explain to students how they would be graded. Those challenges, plus strong backlash from parents, caused the state to scrap the experiment earlier this year, allowing districts the choice to return to traditional diplomas.

“If you don’t have the buy-in of your community, you’re in for a world of hurt,” Finn explained.

Maine’s meltdown matters because the ideas at the core of the state’s efforts are influencing states and school districts across the country. Forty-eight states have adopted policies to promote “competency-based” education to varying degrees, often at the urging of a constellation of influential philanthropies, including the Nellie Mae Foundation, which poured at least $13 million into Maine’s effort.

Meanwhile, new research documents the challenges that beset the effort seemingly from day one. And there remains little evidence that proficiency-based education has boosted student learning, in Maine or elsewhere.

“A lot of folks are looking closely at what’s happened in Maine and trying to draw lessons from it,” said Charlie Toulmin, the policy director of the Nellie Mae Foundation.

Maine schools quickly faced hurdles

Earlier in 2012, the Massachusetts-based Nellie Mae Foundation awarded nearly $9 million to two of Maine’s largest school districts, Portland and Sanford. The money was meant to help them adopt what the organization calls “student-centered” approaches. That includes what’s called mastery, competency, or proficiency-based learning, which means that students progress at their own pace, moving on only when they demonstrate they’ve learned a certain topic.

Those districts quickly got to work. “Parents may ultimately stop seeing report cards with A, B, or C grades on it and instead start seeing what it is that their student can do,” the Sanford superintendent said.

Those districts’ moves made what came next seem less radical than it might otherwise have. With bipartisan support, Maine lawmakers passed the bill revamping graduation requirements statewide, titled “An Act To Prepare Maine People for the Future Economy.” It required all districts to begin awarding diplomas based on student proficiency in several years.

Then it fell to districts and schools to make sense of the new rules — a complicated endeavor that sometimes meant scrapping key elements of how high school traditionally worked.

Each district was tasked with determining what it meant for a student to be “proficient” in the subjects Maine required. Officials knew that if they set standards too high, an unprecedented number of students could fail to graduate. Too low, and it would defeat the purpose of the whole exercise.

Those questions reverberated in schools, too. Schools weren’t required to change their grading systems, and some held onto their A-Fs. Teachers in many others starting awarding students scores of 1 through 4, with 3 equalling proficient, for each of the key standards.

The law required that students be able to demonstrate that proficiency in a variety of ways, whether through a traditional exam, a portfolio of work, a project, or a performance. But what that meant varied widely between classrooms, creating headaches for students.

Many let students take and retake tests to prove they were proficient, and some stopped grading homework or classwork altogether.

“Each teacher has their own system,” Ellie Roy, a senior at Gray-New Gloucester High School, told the Hechinger Report last year.

Evan Cyr, a high school teacher in Auburn, Maine, said the changes forced him to get “really explicit with students” about the connection between the work they were doing in class and the standards that they would actually be tested on.

At the same time, teachers began evaluating students on things like being a critical thinker or an informed citizen — qualities that were included in the new graduation requirements.

The shifts left plenty of students and parents confused and frustrated. Proficiency was the goal, but doesn’t 3 out of 4 equate to a C? Would out-of-state colleges be able to make sense of the new and confusing transcripts? And how did any of these scores translate into the information that undergirds many of the traditional trappings of high school, like sports eligibility, class rankings, and a valedictorian?

Research, including a series of papers released by the University of Southern Maine and a  study funded by Nellie Mae released this month, has examined how a number of districts responded to those challenges.

They found that most teachers continued using traditional exams, not portfolios or performances. Some teachers remained overwhelmed by the prospect of helping struggling students clear the bar without more guidance.

“We’re only till the end of quarter one, and they’re already not able to meet the standards from quarter one of that class, so it’s very concerning,” one special education teacher told researchers. “How is this going to work? And to be honest, nobody really … has a good answer for us.”

Others remained concerned that allowing students to demonstrate proficiency whenever they wanted could have unintended consequences. Cyr said this was the most controversial aspects with parents in his district. “Some of our students have developed some bad habits that are really going to plague them about deadlines,” said one teacher.

A few students agreed. “I just feel like I’m not getting challenged enough because I know if I don’t pass it, I can just do it again and do it again,” one 10th-grader told researchers.

Concerns began mounting among district leaders, too, about how the changes might affect their graduation rates. Since 2011, Maine, like virtually every other state in the country, has seen its graduation rate climb.

“We heard school administrators indicate that their graduation rate wasn’t going to plummet — because they would just change their definition of proficiency,” said Erika Stump, one of the researchers.

Then there was the issue of funding. Districts got a 0.1 percent boost in state funding to implement the law, which in most cases amounted to just a few thousand dollars. This ran headlong into some of the ramped-up graduation requirements, like proficiency in a foreign language. One Maine district resorted to purchasing the Rosetta Stone program after being unable to find French or Spanish teachers.

Nellie Mae tried to fill in some of that funding gap. The foundation has given nearly $9 million since 2010 to the nonprofit Great Schools Partnership to help schools implement the law and to build support for the policy. The state department of education was also supposed to provide support; it created a help website, including a best practices page also funded by Nellie Mae.

But the foundation’s outsize role has drawn criticism. “The proficiency-based diploma law has created a niche market for a special group of education ‘consultants’ with financial backing, mostly from the Nellie Mae Foundation, to dictate to policymakers what a diploma should mean,” one skeptical Republican state legislator wrote in March.

Toulmin of Nellie Mae said the philanthropy wasn’t the driving force some made it out to be. “There was already some energy in different places of the state to do this before any of our support came along,” he said.

It’s unclear whether Maine’s new approach led to better results

Did all of that change help students?

The patchwork of local policies mean it’s difficult to measure just how much instruction in Maine high schools changed. The recent Nellie Mae-funded report found that across 11 high schools, most students still weren’t experiencing much “personalized” instruction.

It did find that students who were exposed to more of the approach had slightly lower SAT scores but a higher feeling of engagement in school, though the study couldn’t show whether the proficiency-based approach was the cause of either one.

As for educators, a survey found that only 18 percent of high school teachers believed that the new graduation requirements “increase academic rigor.” But some did say it pushed them to focus more intensely on struggling students. In a number of places, schools added tutoring and after-school programs to help kids who were behind.

“I want them to meet the standard, and the only way to meet some of those kids is to sit down one-on-one,” one math teacher told researchers. “I’ve done a lot more conferencing, and a lot more walking around the room, and a lot more helping them than I have before.”

Any educational successes, though, weren’t enough to keep the experiment from becoming a political failure.

Earlier this year, talk of changing the law attracted hundreds of comments from parents and teachers, sometimes spurring fierce protest.

The state legislature soon conceded. Lawmakers repealed the requirement that districts issue proficiency-based diplomas in June — before a single class of students statewide was required to earn them. Maine Governor Paul LePage, who backed the 2012 law, signed off on the changes in July.

A few districts quickly jumped at the chance to scrap the proficiency-based diplomas.

“Student achievement will be recognized as it has historically been recognized with honor roll, with valedictorian, salutatorian, top 10 percent of the class, some of the historical things that we’re familiar with will be in place,” explained a principal in York, Maine.

Other districts have announced they’re going to keep going. The state department of education says it doesn’t have a count on how many districts have moved back to the traditional system.

Finn, the principal at Gray-New Gloucester High, is still optimistic. He wants his district to continue working to get proficiency-based education right, particularly after the time and money that’s already been invested.

“Can you imagine shifting gears?” he said. “We’ve got kids right now, members of the class of 2020, who are under the new graduation requirements.”

Advocates push forward

Proponents of proficiency-based learning argue that none of this reflects flaws in the concept. Maine struggled, they say, because they didn’t introduce the new systems thoughtfully enough, moving too quickly and requiring change rather than encouraging it.

“When there was poor implementation — and there was poor implementation — then of course the parents and the community members start saying, hey, we don’t like this competency-based education,” said Chris Sturgis, co-founder of CompetencyWorks. “But it wasn’t really competency-based education.”

“It is a lesson on the perils of putting a mandate in place and not having organized for the necessary clarity and guidance for the field,” said Toulmin, Nellie Mae’s policy director.

Those lessons matter far beyond Maine. Competency-based education and other related approaches, like “personalized learning,” are spreading across the country, catalyzed by prominent advocates and influential funders. They include the U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, as well as philanthropies like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Chalkbeat is funded by CZI, Emerson via the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and Gates.)

Many have made arguments strikingly similar to the ones Maine lawmakers used to push for the new graduation requirements — that schools haven’t changed in many years and they need to in order to prepare students for a rapidly changing economy.

Neither of those claims is nearly as clear-cut as advocates contend, and there remains limited research on whether competency-based or personalized approaches boost students’ success in school. Existing studies have often focused on schools that are best poised to implement such changes and have generally found small to moderate learning gains.

“A lot of it says: The reality is that there is some initial early results, and that we don’t know enough,” said Eve Goldberg, the director of research at Nellie Mae.

Today, almost every state support proficiency-based education in some way — a number that has increased dramatically since 2012, according to CompetencyWorks. Fifteen districts in Illinois are participating in a competency-based high school graduation pilot program. In Arizona, students can opt to earn a proficiency-based diploma. Examples of schools and districts trying the approach also exist in Indiana and Colorado, among others.

The concept has particularly taken hold in the Northeast, often with funding from Nellie Mae, which focuses on the region. New Hampshire now requires districts to base academic credits on mastery of content.

Most similar to Maine is Vermont, which is set to require students to earn proficiency-based diplomas in 2020. That’s causing pushback there too.

“We are leapfrogging everyone,” one resident said at a Vermont house committee hearing in April. “We are running an educational experiment on our kids based on theory, not proof that this has worked in another state.”

Charter Churn

New York City charters burn through principals faster than district schools, report finds

PHOTO: Getty Images / Spencer Platt
A charter school rally in New York City

As the principal at Renaissance Charter School, Stacey Gauthier’s job extends well beyond supervising teachers. She manages fundraising, lobbies elected officials to support charter schools, and even responds to issues raised by the teachers union.

“We are basically our own district,” she said, noting that the work of running an independent charter school can be a challenge without the infrastructure that comes with a school system or even a large charter network.

Despite that heavy workload, Gauthier has stayed in her role for 11 years, making her an outlier among charter principals. According to a first-of-its-kind report released earlier this month by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, the city’s charter schools generally churn through principals at a much higher rate than traditional district schools.

Last school year, 25 percent of the city’s charter school principals were new, more than double the turnover rate at district schools. That level of turnover represents something of a paradox: Studies show principal turnover can hurt student achievement, but research has also shown the city’s charter schools generally have higher state test scores than district schools do.

“If the research is right” about the consequences of principal turnover, said Marcus Winters, a Manhattan Institute fellow and the report’s author, “by addressing it, [charter schools] could improve even more.”

But it’s not clear why turnover is so much higher at charter schools, which also often churn through teachers at a higher rate.

One reason could be differences in student demographics. Since charter schools enroll a greater share of low-income students and students of color than district schools on average, that could make for a more challenging environment that contributes to churn. But controlling for differences in student demographics — including proportions of English learners, students with disabilities, those coming from poor families, and race — the report found no meaningful effect on turnover.

Another possible reason: Charter principals are easier to fire than district principals who typically have more union protections. A charter principal who runs a school that is seen as low performing is easier to replace, the theory goes, explaining higher levels of turnover. But the data don’t back up that theory. Even after taking into account differences in school performance as measured by school quality reports, higher turnover “was not driven by overall school performance,” Winters found.

It’s also possible charter schools are just more difficult work environments in ways that are difficult to measure, including some schools’ adoption of a “no excuses” ethos that tells educators that a student’s life circumstances should never excuse performance issues at school. (The report does not include breakdowns of individual charter schools or networks.)

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said there could be some truth to the idea that charter schools are tougher work environments, but added that some of the turnover could be related to fierce competition for leadership talent.

“There’s such a huge supply-demand imbalance for high-quality principals,” he said.

The report includes another puzzling trend — turnover in district and charter schools fluctuates significantly over time. Over the past 10 years, turnover at district schools ranged from 8.7 to 14 percent each year. At charters, turnover ranged from 7 to nearly 34 percent. Those swings meant that in two of the last 10 years, district turnover was slightly higher than it was at charters.

Winters, the report’s author, didn’t come to a firm conclusion about why the turnover rates seemed to shift significantly from year to year.

“I left this paper with more questions than answers,” he said.

Speaking Up

Letters to J.B.: Here’s what 10 Illinois educators said governor-elect Pritzker should prioritize

PHOTO: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

As governor-elect and national early childhood education advocate J.B. Pritzker assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, we asked educators to weigh in with items he should consider.

Here are 10 of their responses, which range from pleas for more staffing to more counseling and mental health services. Letters have been edited only for clarity and length. Got something to add? Use the comment section below or tell us on Twitter using #PritzkerEdu.

From: A non-profit employee who works with schools in the city and suburbs

Letter to J.B.: I work with a number of students from the City of Chicago and sadly most of them lack basic skills. Most of the students lack the ability to read and write properly, and perform below grade level. It is alarming how many students don’t have critical-thinking and analytical skills. The lack of education in low-income and minority population will hurt our city and state in years to come.

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From: A youth organizer at Morrill Elementary, a K-8 school on Chicago’s Southwest Side

Letter to J.B.: Morrill School has suffered from constant turnover due to an unstable Chicago Public Schools environment that cares more about upholding its own self-interest than the people it should be serving. We need representatives that will advocate for what communities say they need!

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From: A music teacher at a Chicago charter school

Letter to J.B.: I work at a charter school and I don’t think we are doing the best we can for our kids. Our school’s policies are too harsh and dehumanizing.

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From: A Chicago charter school social worker

Letter to J.B.: We’ve cut mental health services throughout the city and that has crippled us. Parents have a hard time getting jobs and having enough money to supply basic needs.

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From: A Chicago principal

Letter to J.B.: My school is 100 percent free- and reduced-price lunch-eligible, or low-income population. We are a middle years International Baccalaureate school. Our children were once were the lowest performing in the area and now we are a Level 1-plus school. Our school was on the closing list back in 2005 when I took over.

But now we are an investment school. Teachers are dedicated and work hard. We need funding for a new teacher to keep classes small and additional funds to purchase multiple resources to continue and strengthen overall academics. We have a vested interest in educating all of our children!

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From: A teacher at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood

Letter to J.B.: Great kids. Great staff. No librarian. Extremely poor special education services. No substitute teachers. No time for planning. No time for anyone to provide mental health services for those in need.

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From: A teacher at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s Near West Side

Letter to J.B.: Every teacher knows that well over 90 percent of the students with academic problems have serious problems at home and in their neighborhoods. In the suburbs, social worker and psychologist staffing levels are often five to 10 times what they are here in the city, where kids are dealing with way more challenges, not less. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, fund psychologists and social workers!

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From: A teacher in the Galesburg CUSD 205

Letter to J.B.: Our school is diverse in all definitions of the word. We have a diverse population in terms of race, money, and ability. We currently don’t have the money to keep all of the schools in our district open and are in the process of closing some of the buildings in order to get the others up to code and comfortable; many of our schools don’t even have air conditioning.

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From: A teacher at Kiefer School, a Peoria school that educates children with severe behavioral and learning challenges

Letter to J.B.: We work with students with behavioral and mental challenges who need more help getting mental health services. We’ve had children deflected from being hospitalized due to no beds being available.

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From: A teacher at Unity Junior High School in Cicero

Letter to J.B.: People often think that our school is “bad,” but the truth is, we have so many staff and students that work hard every day to bring positive change.