"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, April 20, 2015

Lewiston, Maine Schools Being Re-made by Common Core and "Proficiency-Based Learning"

Special Report 
by Emily Talmage

Something very bad is happening to our schools right now, and its been very sneaky. People (including me) have been very slow to wake up to what is happening.

In our district, Lewiston, we have been hearing about "Proficiency Based Learning" for awhile now, and this year teachers, students and parents - particularly at the high school, where it was first rolled out - have been pulling their hair out over the new rules and policies - none of which (and this is not surprising) have come from any demand from the people (parents, students, teachers) in our district itself.

Report cards have been changed from traditional 1-100 grades to 1-4, and all rubrics, assessments and scoring must now be aligned with the new Maine Learning Standards - i.e. Common Core.   Word from the high school is that this new process has been incredibly confusing and stressful.  Students have lost motivation because they no longer understand what their grades mean; parents are confused about whats being reported to them (and some are very angry); and teachers are being asked to basically re-work everything they have ever done to align to Common Core. ( I'm not entirely sure why, but its worth noting that the HS principal actually quit mid-way through the year last year.  Another principal at an elementary school decided to retire early this year, and so at Montello, we've lost of beloved assistant principal to take that spot at their school.... To say our district is in upheaval might be accurate.)

In fourth grade, we haven't yet had to implement the new "standards-based" (re: common core) aligned report card, because in elementary they are doing it a bit more gradually, but we HAVE had to sit around during our planning time converting our data (reading and writing assessments, etc) into "standards-based" format - i.e 1-4 - to enter into Pearson Inform.   When I inquired why we were doing it, the answer was just that "that's the way Pearson wants it." 

[Sidebar: Pearson's data storage vendor, RSA, suffered a major hack in 2011.]

So that's the quick view from the front-lines... I'm actually meeting with a group of parents and teachers today for lunch to talk more about concerns and will likely learn more details ... so naturally, especially now that testing is over and I have a little bit of brain-space, I wanted to know: what on earth IS THIS and this an why are we pulling our hair out because of it??

So here's the answer, at least partially:

Back when Gates was rubbing his hands together about the idea of Common Core, one his ideas was to push the idea of "proficiency-based pathways" - i.e. to link everything happening in classrooms to the new standards. 

The paper talks about the great potential of this to "move learning away from the classroom" and make use of - you guessed it - digital and online media!  (Note the simultaneous push for "game based" learning, for which there is no supporting research... but what do you know, this is what they are working tirelessly on over at Amplify, under Joel Klein's leadership and Rupert Murdoch's funding!)

Some worrisome quotes from the Gates paper:

Education leaders have long talked about setting rigorous standards and allowing students more or less time as needed to demonstrate mastery of subjects and skills. This has been more a promise than a reality, but we believe it’s possible with the convergence of the Common Core State Standards, the work on new standards-based assessments, the development of new data systems, and the rapid growth of technology-enabled learning experiences.

 Learning solutions should employ digital resources—simulations, videos, video conferencing, games, interactive maps, data-analysis software, and virtual worlds—as an integral part of the learning experience. Students should be able to use these digital resources as tools to support their thinking.

Students can email, chat, or have video conversations with teachers, and they can use online course-management systems to organize and exchange learning materials (e.g., the assignments given by teachers or the work turned in by students). Students can use software programs, apps, and educational games to learn on their own time, at their own pace, and without instruction or supervision from teachers.

The idea of "proficiency based pathways," however, is essentially a made-up concept.  Here is what the paper says:

This field is still emerging. We do not yet have a common language, rigorous evaluation process, or literature base. The field does not have consistent metrics for delivering quality outcomes online. Our investments will support the field and establish indicators for mastering skills and knowledge.
So, what have they done to invest in propagating this concept?  They have given millions to Nellie Mae [and the Nellie Mae Foundation], which has produced reports like this.

If you read it carefully, it essentially co-opts the language of real teaching and learning that teachers value (peformance tasks, mastery, learning-centered) by looking at a handful of schools that they say are implementing versions of "competency based learning" ...  schools that are in fact very progressive and that employ some really admirable teaching and learning practices...  only to ultimately say,

We know districts don't have the resources for this; and with common core, it will be easier.  
And then they push their own vision (see Gates paper above!), which is NOTHING like what happens in these schools they profile.

And who else is leading the charge on the discussion of proficiency/competency based learning?  Lumina - and ALEC funded organization, and Achieve.  

[Sidebar:  Link here to ALEC Model Legislation]

If you ask me, the message has been pretty effectively manipulated in order to create buy-in from teachers and schools, because no one really seems to know what's going on, but everyone has her own idea of it.  Some teachers think it means performance-based learning, which is what many of us studied in ed school.  Some think it means backward design.  Some think it is just a change in report cards (which is what I thought until recently).  Some think the emphasis is on differentiating and allowing students to do more projects. 

But I think if you pay close attention, there is a very particular model being pushed that is quite the opposite of these things.

So what's happening in Maine in particular, and why are we so ahead of the game on this?

In 2012, a Nellie-Mae funded group, Educate Maine, proposed and managed to have passed legislation in our state that would require that by 2017, all districts award "proficiency based diplomas."  Currently we are the only state with such legislation.  Here's a link to the actual law:

Not only did they pass the legislation, they also (by they I mean Nellie Mae/Gates) established "partnerships" to lead the implementation - one being the New England Secondary School Consortium, and the other Great Schools Partnership (which seem to be the same thing, essentially...)

And of course, if you go on the Great Schools page, you will see all the same language and ideas reflected in the Gates/Nellie Mae papers above... including that same concerning admission that there is no research to back this idea up.

When educators talk about “proficiency-based learning,” they are referring to a variety of diverse instructional practices—many of which have been used by the world’s best schools and teachers for decades—and to organizational structures that support or facilitate the application of those practices in schools. Proficiency-based learning may take different forms from school to school—there is no universal model or approach—and educators may use some or all of the ten principles of proficiency-based learning identified by the Great Schools Partnership.

For this reason, educators are unlikely to find an abundant amount of research on “proficiency-based learning,” per se, because the term comprises educational models and instructional approaches that share many important commonalities, but that may also vary significantly in design, application, and results (as with any educational approach, some schools and teachers do it more effectively than others).
So now, in Lewiston, where we are desperate for more teachers - I will have close to 30 students if we aren't able to afford another 4th grade teacher, and its looking like we won't - we are paying thousands of dollars to Great Schools to help us implement what is essentially an unproven, Gates-funded, corporate-driven idea that is making everyone crazy.

Some districts have been granted waivers and extensions.  Its still unclear to me why our district did not take this route.

It's also worth noting that at least some people seemed to have anticipated needing this concept of PBL once the new Common Core tests rolled out.  This article was printed in Forbes in 2012, and is titled "Can Competency Based Learning Save Common Core?" 

Here's just part of the article [bolds not in original]:

“The behind-the-scenes buzz on Common Core touched on everything from how different the assessments really will be from what some states have today to whether Common Core will doom testing and the accountability movement more generally because of the length of the assessments to whether governors will stick with Common Core once the first year of assessment results come out and people see how students perform poorly on them.

“I’m a proponent of states adopting Common Core state standards that are fewer, clearer, and higher in part because of the innovation their adoption could seed through the creation of a common market. Having common standards across the country could begin to reward content providers that target the long tail of learners because they would help to aggregate demand across the country, as opposed to what happens today where those providers that tailor their offerings to different and idiosyncratic state standards, for example, are rewarded.”

Of course, if there were instead systems of assessments in a competency-based learning system built for students to take an assessment on-demand when the were ready to demonstrate mastery on specific competencies, we would see a different picture develop with assessments that left no doubt that they were different.

To the credit of David Coleman and Dr. William Schmidt, a professor at Michigan State University and another of the key thought leaders behind the Common Core, at Bush’s summit they spoke about how Common Core could unleash competency-based learning.  Indeed, Common Core and competency-based learning should be a natural fit, as the former creates learning maps for students to master that can shift the emphasis from time to mastery of deeper learning.

I’m all for all students having an equal opportunity to be exposed to and master the same foundational concepts, as opposed to the way today’s system works (and by the way, the adoption of digital learning would go a long way in helping solve this),

Common Core creates a huge opportunity for innovation and personalization and the implementation of a competency-based learning system. . .
Emily Talmage is a public school teacher in Lewiston, Maine.

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