Category: Updates

School districts in Maine rethink PBL

With the change in the law, districts throughout the state are reassessing where they stand and where they want to go.

York schools recently decided that they weren’t ready to move to a full PBL implementation, and will be granting credit-based diplomas and using a traditional grading system. The principal sent out a letter to the parents, explaining his and his vice principal’s thoughts on the matter and what it means for the students in the district.

Just as in our district, RSU9 is now revisiting PBL and its efficacy and implementation.

Per comments online and the latest school board meeting, it looks like MSAD75 (Topsham – Mt. Ararat) is also moving back to 0-100 — and they are reopening the conversation for PBL in younger grades, as well (not just high school).

Continue reading “School districts in Maine rethink PBL”

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Bill Gates Admits On Education Tech, ‘We Really Haven’t Changed Outcomes’

This article is a couple years old, but…

I found this perspective particularly enlightening (with my emphasis added):

Headmaster John Vallance pronounced the billions of dollars spent on classroom technology a “scandalous waste of money” that “distracts” from quality teaching. “We see teaching as fundamentally a social activity,” Dr. Vallance said. “It’s about interaction between people, about discussion, about conversation. We find that having laptops or iPads in the classroom inhibits conversation – it’s distracting.”

Dr. Vallance identified a related problem with technological “personalized learning” – when conversation is removed from education, the students find themselves confronted with a uniform point of view. “The digital delivery of teaching materials across Australia has had a powerful normative effect,” he observed. “It’s making it quite difficult for children to learn how to disagree, how not to toe the party line, because they can’t question things – the possibility of questioning things has been taken away from them.”

I’m a lover of technology. But I’m certain I don’t want my kid to have such personalized learning (e.g., at his own pace, less interaction/conversation with kids in the class and with the teacher) — that he doesn’t learn how to communicate well. That he can’t ask questions and hear different answers. That he’s not exchanging ideas with others. I want him to learn how to question things. I want him to learn HOW to learn. Not just how to skip through skills and assessments at his own speed, with little interaction with others. Part of learning is just that — interacting with others. If I wanted to take that experience from him, I could home school him. I could expose him to fewer ideas and perspectives. I could have every aspect of his learning be personalized and isolated and limited to only what I want him to learn. Or only what he chooses to learn. I fear PBL starts down this path. We personalize the education to “fit” the kid — instead of exposing the kid to as much as possible — which teaches the kid how to adjust and learn in different situations. Skills that can’t be learned if we go down the path of personalizing everything.
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Mark Zuckerberg’s Plan To ‘Personalize’ Learning Rests On Shaky Ground

This is similar to a refrain I’ve heard from others about aspects of PBE that are “good” — “it just makes sense.” My question is why are we instituting new ways of educating kids based on it “making sense” — and not based on actual research? Things that make sense to some, don’t always make sense to others. And this is EDUCATION. We should be basing how we teach our kids on more than someone’s gut feeling. Use the gut feeling to justify doing the research — and find out if your gut was right. Don’t jump past the research stage and into changing a system for thousands of kids based solely on it “making sense.”

From the article:

Perhaps the basic reason for Zuckerberg’s enthusiasm is that, as he has said, “The model just intuitively makes sense.” That is, it intuitively makes sense to people like Zuckerberg and Gates, both highly motivated Harvard dropouts. No doubt they would have enjoyed school far more if they’d been able to race ahead at their own pace and choose what they wanted to learn.

Full article:

Personalized learning is a slippery term, but the basic idea is to tailor learning to individual students and have them demonstrate they’ve mastered one component of learning before moving on to the next. Technology plays a key role, with students using software that is supposed to fit their needs.

And here’s where it seems the author points out that they don’t appear to have any evidence, yet, of its effectiveness:

The idea of personalized learning has proven appealing not only to Zuckerberg but also to his fellow tech titan Bill Gates. “I love this cutting-edge school design,” Gates has declared on his blog. Between 2013 and 2017, the Gates Foundation invested over $300 million to support research on personalized learning. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have announced that their own education initiative will invest “hundreds of millions of dollars a year” in the field, which they believe will provide “every student with a customized education.” Gates and Zuckerberg have even teamed up on one joint grant—a relatively modest $12 million—to promote personalized learning and build an “evidence base” that proves its effectiveness.

That’s unusual. Generally speaking, education reformers like Gates and Zuckerberg say they want to see an evidence base before they invest in an idea. They want data and “proof points” that show the idea works. And when it comes to personalized learning, the data is inconclusive at best.

The most encouraging study to date found that personalized learning had a modest positive effect on math test scores and no significant impact on scores in reading. But other studies have found that some personalized learning programs can reduce students’ enjoyment of learning or make them less likely to feel there’s an adult at their school who knows them well.

And people wonder why some parents are pushing back?

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‘An Expensive Experiment’: Gates Teacher-Effectiveness Program Shows No Gains for Students


June 21, 2018

This conclusion to an expensive chapter of teacher-evaluation reform shows the difficulty of making sweeping, lasting changes to teacher performance. The results also demonstrate the challenges of getting schools and teachers to embrace big changes, especially when state and local policies are in flux.

The evaluation of the program, released today, was conducted by the RAND Corporation with the American Institutes for Research and was funded by the Gates Foundation.

Continue reading “‘An Expensive Experiment’: Gates Teacher-Effectiveness Program Shows No Gains for Students”

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New PBE section on website

Superintendent Becky Foley reached out to let us know that there’s a new section all about proficiency-based education on the website:

New PBE section on the site

She also mentioned that it’s a work in progress and there are things that they haven’t yet posted and additional updates to sections. But it’s nice to see that it’s been started.

Also, it was nice to see a page set up for research — something I’d asked about repeatedly in meetings. But I don’t think any of it is peer-reviewed, “real” research. They’re articles written by proponents of PBE (to varying degrees). And they mainly point out what they identify as deficiencies in the current system. And they suggest a solution. But I don’t see anything there that is actual research showing why PBE is a solid alternative to traditional systems. Again… pointing out an issue and supplying a solution. Completely skipping the research part — that may or may not support the proclaimed solution.

And Thomas Guskey is cited in there. Every time I see him as a source of research about the benefits of the PBE approach I get concerned. He appears to make his living off selling books, giving talks and promoting reform. And has for years. Check out his CV. He’s prolific! And he’s got a slick website where you can try to get him to come give a talk. He’s also focused on professional development. Or as I think of it — explaining why teachers are to blame for everything and how we need to change them to improve the system — usually, conveniently through some conference or talk or professional materials that he can sell you. And while his bio says he started out teaching, his CV makes it clear that he only taught 7-8th grades for 2-3 years. In the early 70s. At what I think is/was a private school. So, while he has lots of experience at the college level, his first-hand experience teaching PreK-12 is limited at best. I love it when someone with little to no direct experience doing something (or at the very least conducting extensive research about it) tells everyone else they have the answer. And makes a living telling people this. I need to go through the CV in depth to see if anything in there is peer-reviewed research.

Anyway, I appreciate the fact that the RSU5 school system is making an attempt at transparency, even if I think some of it highlights the fact that they don’t seem to have a lot of supporting documentation showing WHY they think PBE is so great. It’s a step in the right direction. And I think it will lead to more discussions. And right now, I’m grateful that our requests aren’t falling on deaf ears.

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Opinion: ‘Proficiency’ is a flawed model for education


The supposed goal of proficiency education (and other outcome-based models, such as competency-based learning) is to ensure that all students meet certain measurable benchmarks by year’s end and that all who receive a diploma are proficient in specific areas. The model is based on the notion that every kid can become proficient, if given the time. But when time is limited, resources are stretched, and students arrive at school with wildly different experiences, strengths, and weaknesses, it is rarely the case that everyone ends up in the same place in June.

It also sets up perverse educational incentives. Because the model focuses on year-end proficiency, teachers are required to let students retake tests and must give full credit for late homework. In theory, this allows students the time they need to master each skill without undue “pressure.” In reality, as anyone with a teenager well knows, it encourages slacking.

Proficiency-based education not only warps incentives. It also perverts the curriculum itself. This is particularly true in disciplines such as literature and history, where, traditionally, the goal is to familiarize students with a body of knowledge about which they are then expected to think critically, formulate new ideas, and communicate effectively. In such disciplines, promoting skills at the expense of the content itself leaves students untethered from meaning and unable to communicate effectively about anything. (But never fear: There’s always Google. And Wikipedia. And Alexa.)

Full article:

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Legislators vote to ease Maine’s proficiency-based education mandate, allow more ‘local control’

AUGUSTA — Six years after Maine became one of the first few states to adopt new high school graduation standards, lawmakers are poised to roll back those requirements by allowing school districts to decide whether to issue proficiency-based diplomas.

Both the House and the Senate voted Tuesday night to eliminate the state mandate that students demonstrate proficiency in eight key areas – including math, English and science/technology – to graduate. Rather than repeal the 6-year-old reform law altogether, the bill would enable school districts to choose whether to continue using proficiency-based standards or revert to the traditional system of courses, A through F grades and credits to qualify for graduation.

The bill has not yet been sent to the governor.

Read the full article:

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More Do-Overs and Fewer Tests: Some Maine Educators Worry About Graduates In ‘Proficiency-Based’ Ed

In making the transition to these new, proficiency-based diplomas, some schools have moved away from midterms, finals and other tests, in favor of projects. But some educators fear that could erode some students’ test-taking skills, and their efforts to get into college.

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PBL Workshop – September 12, 2018 at 6:30 pm

I sent a note to the board to make sure I hadn’t missed the mention of it, and Becky responded that they’d confirmed a date and put it into this week’s executive board meeting agenda.

I’ve included my original email below because I also saw some comments online from a parent at Traip and wanted to share my concerns with the board and the high school administrators (and with people online).

Anyway, looks like we’re set for a workshop on September 12th — to be able to find out what the teachers set in motion over the summer, and to be able to ask questions about how things will be working in the newly devised grading system.

Please start spreading the word and add September 12th at 6:30 pm to your calendar!

—– Forwarded Message —–

To: Board
Cc: Charlie Mellon; Jennifer Gulko
Sent: Monday, June 18, 2018, 9:00:42 PM EDT
Subject: PBL/PBE workshop in the fall?

Hey all. Just one last pre-summer request. I had been under the impression that the PBE workshop was still planned for the beginning of the new school year — likely during the first board meeting (September 12, 2018).

I realized after I left the last meeting, while I had mentioned it during public comment, I don’t recall hearing it mentioned again by any members of the board — in terms of it definitely happening or confirming the date. I’m hoping I just somehow missed this, but wanted to email to follow-up.

So, I wanted to again ask if the PBE workshop is being planned for the first board meeting of the school year.

While I think many parents feel a bit relieved that the grading system is changing, I know a few have voiced concerns that this has changed a few times already, and are concerned it could change again. And I think a workshop (that had already been discussed and I’d thought the concept of it had been agreed to) would help the community understand the new plan that the high school develops this summer. My understanding (and this could be wrong — so please correct me if it is), is that the August 27th meeting is for kids entering 9th grade. That excludes all other students and parents from the conversation. And while it’s important that those kids get the info they’ll need immediately for their 9th grade year, it’s again one group of kids and parents getting info — and not the whole community, even though there are many other kids who will be touched by these changes in the years to come. The workshop would ensure any concerned parent or community member would be informed of what’s happening, and be able to join in the conversation if any concerns in the new policies come to light.

As a side note, I recall hearing about how a chunk of what FHS has done, when it comes to implementing policies and practices related to PBL, was mirrored, in part, after Traip Academy (including using their Family Guide to PBL as the initial template for ours). Today, in a Facebook group about PBL in Maine, I saw the following post (see below) that includes some thoughts from a Traip parent. I thought I’d share. And yes, it’s only one parent, but, I think it echoes a lot of concerns parents in RSU5 have shared, and continue to share — and not just about the grading. I’ve removed the names (the group is a closed, private group, so I’ve respected everyone’s wishes to not share names outside the group) — except for the parent in question since he said it was fine to share it.

Reading this has caused me again to request that as we move forward, in whatever way we do, when looking at schools and districts to emulate, we don’t look to the schools that seem to still be struggling (in many ways — not just with PBL). There’s a reason Yarmouth, Greely, Falmouth, and Cape Elizabeth never seem to be in the news in a negative light when it comes to how they’re meeting the proficiency-based diploma statute (and still ensuring great educational outcomes for their kids) — and why you never hear about parents in those districts fighting PBL. They’ve managed to incorporate and embrace aspects of PBL that they find merit in, without upending their whole system, and without treating their kids, and their kids’ futures, as experiments. I’m hoping, going forward, we can follow their lead.

Thanks again for listening to all our concerns this year! Hope the summer gives you all a bit of a respite!

Pam Barry-Santos

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