The topic of proficiency-based learning continues to dominate conversations in schools across the state of Vermont. We are rapidly approaching 2020, the first year that students must graduate high school based on proficiency, instead of merely from the accrual of Carnegie units. This deadline has some school and district administrators a bit anxious and many others wondering how this whole proficiency thing is actually going to shake out. As a backdrop to the Vermont implementation context is the recent rollback of proficiency-based graduation requirements in Maine. This has created a bit of a stir in Vermont.
Over the summer, the Maine legislature and senate voted to rollback the original proficiency-based graduation requirement policy. In 2012, Maine became one of the first states to adopt a policy that included proficiency requirements for high school graduation. Only four years in, there was major pushback from a variety of stakeholders about the proficiency graduation requirements set forth in the state policy. Though Maine did not completely repeal the law, they did restructure it by removing the high school proficiency requirements for graduation. Instead of being a state mandate, individual high schools can now decide if they want to have a proficiency requirement or not. It is unknown how many schools in Maine will continue with requiring students to demonstrate proficiency in order to graduate high school. The decision in Maine is having a bit of a ripple effect in Vermont.
Depending on your particular school district and community, the Vermont response to proficiency-based graduation requirements and proficiency-based learning has been mixed at best. There is certainly push back from many different corners, including: parents, students, teachers, and community members, among others. It seems that every few weeks there is an op-ed in the Burlington Free Press, Rutland Herald or VTDigger about someone not happy about the shift towards a proficiency-based system of education. Despite some pessimism, a vast majority of individuals understand the basic premise of proficiency and that certain “legacy” practices are flawed.Parents and educators recognize that though proficiency-based systems of education are different than what they are probably familiar with, the “traditional” system is not adequately serving many of our students.
If Vermont happens to roll back or repeal aspects of proficiency-based learning set forth in the Educational Quality Standards and Act 77, it doesn’t mean schools have to abandon their efforts. Vermont educators have put incredible amounts of time and energy into shifting their practices, that it would be a major blow to abandon all efforts. In Vermont we haven’t fully implemented proficiency-based graduation requirements yet, so we don’t really know the impacts. Too often it seems in the world of education, many reform initiatives are never seen to fruition and are ditched when any challenges or roadblocks are encountered. We need to see this effort through. Proficiency cannot become “that thing we used to do”. The work is too important and the stakes are too high to stop. We know that many traditional education practices are faulty, so we cannot go back to what we were doing before. Change takes time and hopefully those in the legislature and elsewhere understand that we will not see immediate results, especially given that many schools have only just started implementation two years ago.
We do not know what the future holds for proficiency-based graduation requirements and proficiency-based learning within Vermont. Regardless of what happens at the policy level, we must always act with students’ best interest at heart. The reasoning behind implementing proficiency-based learning or PBGRs should never simply be: “We have to, it is the law”. Though we might be bound to follow policy, moral imperative should always trump political cover. Personally, I want to do what is best for students. A proficiency-based system provides a more equitable school experience and offers much better data on where students are at, allowing educators to provide better interventions. I hope that Maine’s recent rollback doesn’t distract from the amazing work educators across Vermont are engaged in around proficiency-based learning. Implementing systems of proficiency-based learning is hard work but it is best for students. Therefore, regardless of whether we are “supposed to” or not, proficiency-based learning is the right thing to do.
Andrew Jones is the Director of Curriculum for Mill River Unified Union School District in North Clarendon, Vermont. He is a 2015 Rowland Fellow.