Questions about PBL messaging from the RSU5 district

So, it’s been a bit quiet recently, and the upcoming school board meeting (on 5/23) is set to focus on admin tasks and not allow for public comment, but there have been a few parents asking some additional questions and I wanted to share some of what’s been discovered recently.

One interesting piece that came up was what one parent flagged as a concern in the Freeport High School’s PBL handbook: It’s a concern we’ve brought up quite a bit — where’s the evidence-based research (or even “scholarly” research — not done at the behest of a company paying for it or benefiting from it) that supports proficiency-based learning and grading as all it’s sold to be — and how it will affect kids applying to college.

If you go to page 14 of the handbook, you’ll see quite a bit of hyperbole, with no supporting info. E.g., “…there is no disputing that students who are held to high standards in a PBL system learn deeply and are more able to apply that learning to their future educational endeavors.” Really? “No disputing”? If there’s no disputing any of this, there’d be more research from varied sources (from people not tied to the PBL industry) showing this is unequivocally a major improvement. And last I checked — there’s plenty of research that ends up changing once you dig deep enough or look at the sources (one example: the latest brouhaha over sugar vs. fat and the misleading research, that was paid for by the sugar industry, that had been fed to us for 5 decades as indisputable). So, I challenge any statement that contains “there is no disputing” and goes on to compare it to nothing: “more able to apply that learning” — more able than what? What’s the comparison it’s supposedly making (and the research showing this) — PBL compared to all other teaching methods that exist in the world? It’s all written to dismiss concerns and tell us that if we have any, we’re wrong. Statements like that, meant to shore up the argument that PBL is inherently better, are exactly what riles up parents. It’s the same dismissive “you just don’t understand” or the condescending “you’re just confused” responses we get. They’re meant to shut people down — not have a substantive conversation. It’s meant to sell the product (PBL) — not educate or inform you. There’s no substance to it.

So, we have the sales-pitch/hyperbole rampant throughout the page (it continues on, sharing baseless, unsupported info like how admissions counselors “look favorably on the PBL transcript”* — again, no supporting info in there), and links with supposed supporting info about their claims at the bottom of the page are not links — they don’t work (when viewing in a browser or downloading the pdf and opening it in Acrobat Reader).

But, what really got my attention was when I went to do some more research on all these grandiose statements about the awesomeness that is PBL.

Here’s page 14 from the FHS “Family Guide” (last modified date of 9/13/2017):

RSU5-FHS PBL Handbook
Click to view full-size image: Page 14 of RSU5-FHS PBL Handbook

And here’s page 16 of the Traip Academy “Family Guide” (last revision date of 8/24/2017):

Traip Academy PBL Handbook
Click to view full-size image: Page 16 – Traip Academy PBL Handbook

Open the two up and compare the wording. Now, I’m guessing that Great Schools Partnership essentially wrote this part. It is, in essence a sales pitch and you can’t have 120+ member schools without finding a way to sell something — I believe we’re paying them $15k this year –multiply that by 120 and you’ve got a business (not including any additional money from any of the schools). And I’d love to know the historical numbers on what we’ve paid them since 2009. That’s the only thing that I can say that could remotely justify what appears to me to be pretty obvious plagiarism. If I “reworded” and reused 2-3 paragraphs like this in college, my professors would have failed me in an instant. So, all I can guess is that this is boilerplate language that is pushed out to schools that are part of the Great Schools Partnership/New England Secondary School Consortium — to try to quiet those who question the benefits and efficacy of the PBL system that is their commodity. So, it’s not really plagiarism — it’s the standard sales pitch. A ready-made answer for when teachers or parents ask about a key issue — e.g., “Will 1-4 PBL/PBE grading have any unintended consequences for my kid’s ability to get into school?” They can just point to these three paragraphs of baseless fluff that they expect to appease us and convince us that there are no real issues or doubts about this change.

And this is the whole problem I have with this. The arrogance with which it’s been presented as something we should not question. That it is understood that PBL/PBE is inherently, completely better. If you’re going to present something as fact, you’d better be able to back that up. And, despite all my frustration, I am still not sold that PBE is all bad. Or all good.

What makes me question this, and question everyone’s motives is that:

  • this IS a business for so many involved and so many who promote it. And there is tons of money at stake.
  • there is no solid group of research, unpaid for or untainted by companies who financially benefit. And I’m willing to acknowledge and update this if I ever see any — but I’m still waiting.
  • the sales pitch is incredible. Anyone who ever tries to tell me that some product or change will solve all my worries and there are no downsides (and I just need to get with the times and stop living in the ways of the past) — they’re always ignoring at least one big issue. Trying to distract us from seeing what’s happening behind the curtain.

If this whole thing had been sold as an experiment; if it had not had a blatant sales pitch quality to it; if it weren’t so obvious why some organizations were pushing it (their whole existence and livelihood depends on them selling it) — or at the very least, that administrators acknowledged all of these issues, I wouldn’t be fighting this with such force.

But in this age of alternative facts, I question everything. I don’t believe something just because someone tells me to or because it keeps getting repeated. If there’s any real evidence supporting the grandiose claims about how great PBL/PBE is, then someone needs to share it. Until then, they’re just baseless claims. And if the risk weren’t so huge, I’d be ok with trying to figure out what may really work better with PBE methods. Until then, it’s all just unsupported noise being sold to us. And it’s our kids who will pay for it if it’s not everything they claim it is.

*A thought about why colleges will never say a kid with any transcript will be at a disadvantage in the admissions process… As one educator pointed out to a few of us recently: colleges charge application fees. Why in the world would any college discourage any applicants? If you’re a college and you’re going to get $75+ per applicant and you’re as big as Brown with 35,438 applicants in a year — that’s over $2.67 MILLION just in application fees. Say only half of those kids pay (they waive the fee for need-based kids). That’s still over $1.33 MILLION. Of course they’re not going to tell people not to apply. They’re certainly not going to say a whole group of kids (say, maybe those from a nearby state that’s passed a proficiency-based diploma law) that they will have a tougher time getting in. Why would they? And the fewer that get in, the more selective and sought-after the college could look to kids applying next year. It’s a win-win for colleges to simply say “of course we treat all applicants the same, regardless of their transcripts.”

Please help get the word out to others: