I recently read an opinion piece in The Burlington Free Press that was fraught with misconceptions and inaccuracies about proficiency-based (competency-based) education. I think I’ll take them one at a time over several blog posts.
In the first sentence of the opinion piece, Curtis Hier states “The Vermont Agency of Education is pushing a practice called proficiency-based grading (PBG)”; inaccuracy number one. Proficiency-based education is not about changing a grading system. At the root of a proficiency-based system is transparency about learning expectations so that students can take ownership of their learning. The idea is that schools determine the skills that students will need to be successful in a global economy. These skills allow for the flexibility that is needed given the rapidly changing social and economic dynamics of our society that is drastically different than it was thirty years ago, even ten years ago. Many of these skills have been generated from the common core standards which include literacy and math. Most schools are identifying other content areas as well just as there always has been. Ours include artistic expression, global citizenship, science, physical education and health. There are also transferable skills which are skills that are necessary no matter what environment is considered like being able to communicate effectively or being self-directed. So, for the most part the content is similar but more based on skills needed in that content area which allows for flexibility in what information and knowledge is learned. Teachers are explicitly teaching the skills and providing feedback to students on their progress toward being proficient at those skills using the one through four scale that Hier references.
What Hier neglects to mention is that this one through four scale also has criteria attached to each number which relates to each level of a specific skill. This is very different than a traditional system where assignments are completed and averaged together, combined with other things unrelated to academic skill like participation or attendance to come up with a letter grade. Each teacher uses a different system for grading so a letter can mean a lot of different things. It could mean a learner missed a lot of school or they don’t have a place to do homework in the evening. It could mean that they are diligent about copying homework in the hallway before class. Many schools have decided to move towards a standards based reporting system which ties scores to specific skills. Attaching numbers to the skill levels and reporting the skills independently is different from reporting a grade for a course. A reporting system like this offers more information to both parents, students, colleges and other stakeholders about academic achievement on specific skills.
The rate of technological change and the general pace at which things are changing in our social and economic world is staggering. Teachers have always had a tough job and now we can’t even predict what kids will need to know ten years from now. We need to be cranking out avid learners because the reality is that what we teach kids today may be obsolete in just a few years. If we are going to expect students to be avid learners then we need to model those behaviors. We need to be collaborative with our students. We need to be creative about how we implement these changes so that it is manageable. We need to expect things to change. I am not surprised that teachers who have been in this profession for a while are frustrated by the change. Most of us were educated for a different world. I know I wasn’t prepared. My high school had one computer in the library (I have no idea what it did) and I learned to do research using a card catalog. It’s been a tough learning curve but I have enjoyed drawing on my curiosity and creativity again.
I want to express my concern that generally in education we move from one initiative to another very quickly not giving enough time to each one to do anything well. As a result, many educators are skeptical that anything will last long enough to make a difference. They are complacent, sitting back to wait and see what will happen next rather than digging into anything that might actually make a difference. Sometime back in the eighties, we explored competency based education. It wasn’t perfect but I remember some of the skills I learned through that system very well. What might have happened if we had tweaked that system rather than moving on to the next shiny thing?