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.”

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.