Frustrated Maine parents rally against proficiency-based learning

A state law passed in 2012 is radically changing education in Maine, and few seem to understand it.
Three students' hands are raised in the air.
Hands shoot in the air during a discussion in Emily Talmage’s fourth-grade class in Lewiston. Photo by Gabe Souza.

A state law that requires a new way of granting high school diplomas worries Auburn mother Barbara Howaniec, who has seen her two high-achieving children struggle under the new system.

“I have two very bright kids who are very unmotivated right now,” said Howaniec, who has children in seventh and ninth grades in Auburn schools.

State lawmakers passed a law in 2012 that requires high schools to grant diplomas not on the basis of passing from grade to grade – the way it’s been done for as long as anyone can recall – but instead on something called “proficiency-based education.” This means that to graduate, students must show that they’ve mastered eight subject areas. How school districts administer proficiency-based education is up to each district.

Howaniec is one of more than 1,400 parents who have joined a private Facebook group called Mainers Concerned About Proficiency Based Learning. Many of them are eager to speak at a public hearing next week about a last-minute bill before the Legislature that would dramatically alter this new learning system.

It just doesn’t make sense to repeal a grading system, a learning system, teaching system, that has existed. Sure, it may be imperfect, but figure out what’s not working and work on that.”

– Barbara Howaniec

The bill, L.D. 1898, repeals language in state law relating to proficiency-based high school diplomas and replaces it with “a requirement that the issuance of a high school diploma be based on a student meeting state standards,” according to the bill summary. The Joint Committee on Education announced Thursday that the public hearing will be held on Monday at 1:30 at the State House to discuss L.D. 1898.

Howaniec was one of nearly a dozen parents who gathered informally recently to talk about the state’s requirement that by 2021, all Maine students graduate with a diploma based on whether they can show mastery in eight areas of learning. While the state law does not require school districts to abandon A-F grading or change how they supply college transcripts, some have adopted proficiency-based changes, such as giving 1-4 grades.

“It just doesn’t make sense to repeal a grading system, a learning system, teaching system, that has existed,” Howaniec said. “Sure, it may be imperfect, but figure out what’s not working and work on that. They chose to pull it and replace it without a trial. No trial, no evidence that it works.”

The Maine Department of Education defines proficiency-based education as “any system of academic instruction, assessment, grading and reporting that is based on students demonstrating mastery of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn before they progress to the next lesson, get promoted to the next grade level or receive a diploma.”

The proficiency-based diploma law requires school districts to implement their own systems to make sure high school students achieve proficiency in English language arts, math, science and technology, social studies, health education and physical education, visual and performing arts, career and education development and world languages. Since the law passed in 2012, some districts have made major changes, even granting diplomas based on proficiency-based education, while others are much further behind in the process.

The state never defined proficiency, never told the school districts which grading system to use, and has yet to issue rules about how to implement it. Parents are confused, concerned and angry.

From one teacher’s perspective, part of the difficulty is finding the right balance between a state mandate and local control.

“In northern New England, we champion local control, we demand it,” Edward Little High School teacher Evan Cyr said. “And the state gives it to us. But in doing so, they give us enough rope to hang ourselves. Because now, they are not accountable about how we do that.”

So far, $8 million in state taxpayer money has been spent to implement the new system in Maine, according to the state Department of Education. In addition, more than $13 million has come in to Maine from the Massachusetts-based Nellie Mae Education Foundation to support the roll out of proficiency-based education, according to tax filings by the charity.

Nine school districts will be awarding proficiency-based diplomas this year, two are scheduled for 2019, 10 will be ready in 2020 and the rest have to be ready to award diplomas based on proficiency-based education in 2021, the department said.

The new diploma system was one of the major education initiatives championed by Gov. Paul LePage. Now it appears the proficiency-based diploma law could be significantly altered or scrapped entirely in the final year of LePage’s eight years in office.

Across the country, 16 states have considered, and to some extent adopted, what the National Conference of State Legislatures describes as ‘competency-based education.’ Many states created pilot programs or received competitive grants to give local school districts flexibility to try this new approach to education. But in New England, the states of Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine all took a much more aggressive approach, passing laws to require a switch to proficiency-based diplomas.

‘What are we doing?’

Laurie Frumiento, an Auburn mother of six, moved her older children out of the school system in 2013, but still has younger children in the district.

“I think this program is just set up with every opportunity in the world to put in the minimal amount of work,” she said.

Frumiento said she worries that the system will lead to more screen time for teens who already spend too much time in front of a computer or phone. And she doesn’t understand why there was no pilot program – for example using one grade or school to test it before it was rolled out for an entire school system.

“They are putting a lot of responsibility on kids that aren’t developmentally ready,” Frumiento said, referring to how schools are administering proficiency-based learning.  “They need to be guided by a professional educator, that’s what they go to college for.”

Laura Garcia, a parent of two children in the Auburn schools, said she’s hearing comments from parents of other high-achieving students that the system is “dumbing down” learning to shore up the performance of students who need extra help while leaving other students to work ahead and fend for themselves.

“My biggest worry is proficiency-based learning. While esteemed experts say students will take an interest in their education, it’s having the opposite effect,” Garcia said. “It’s causing motivation to drop, especially among the highest achievers. What are we doing?”

Before proficiency-based learning was implemented, Garcia said her daughter would learn from other students, even be competitive with them. But now she’s on a computer pushing forward by herself with oversight from a teacher, Garcia said.

Jennifer Groover, a mother of three who teaches in Leeds, said when she previously worked in Lewiston schools, she received training in proficiency-based education. For the most part, Groover said it was about what good teachers were already doing: consistently measuring student progress, creating clear expectations and finding ways to bring along students who were struggling.

She’s troubled, though, by what she sees as the expertise of teachers being replaced by the latest idea to come out of a consulting firm or think tank.

When Groover first started teaching 20 years ago, she said she was encouraged to keep up with scholarly research, share her successes with other teachers and attend conventions and workshops to improve her skills.

“Then the shift happened where all of a sudden it became the answers were not going to be found with the teachers,” she said. “The answers were in ‘here, follow this program.’ And all of a sudden, the belief seemed to be if your children weren’t succeeding in your classroom, it’s because you weren’t following the program correctly.”

Success in Hallowell

For Regional School Unit 2 Superintendent William Zima, the simplest way of describing proficiency-based education is that it provides clear expectations to students, teachers and parents. If a student doesn’t understand something, he or she is given support to learn it before moving on.

“Proficiency-based, in its simplest form, is just about being transparent,” he said during a recent interview in his Hallowell office. “Telling kids these are my expectations of you, and now I’m going to give you feedback to meet those expectations.”

Regional School Unit 2 Superintendent William Zima. Photo by Susan Cover.

For example, Zima said, much of what is taught in one math unit builds off what was taught in a previous class. So students who just don’t understand fractions will be lost when it comes to probability and rates.

“Too often, we just keep moving kids along until they are just buried in that chasm,” he said.

Another way of understanding proficiency-based education, Zima said, is to equate it to how an adult performs in a workplace. He said when you take a new job, you’re told what you’re supposed to do to get paid. Then you’re evaluated. And if you aren’t meeting expectations, you’re told exactly what you need to do to continue in the position.

The proficiency-based learning system is designed to address gaps before a student is promoted to the next class or grade level. RSU 2 — Dresden, Farmingdale, Hallowell, Monmouth and Richmond — uses a 1-4 grading system now, where 1 means a student cannot independently show they learned the skill; 2 means a student has the “foundational knowledge;” 3 means a student can apply the knowledge to show understanding; and 4 is going beyond what’s been asked, Zima said.

Colleges have no trouble with transcripts that reflect this different system, Zima said, saying that one Hall-Dale student recently was accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Our transcript does not look significantly different than other transcripts,” he said. “It’s just that you don’t have to satisfy that credit by sitting and getting a certain percentage of what was taught, somewhere between 70 percent and 100 percent of what was taught.”

Zima, a former middle school teacher, said some middle-school children already are working on high school classes, a sign that proficiency-based learning is getting more students into advanced classes.

Proficiency-based, in its simplest form, is just about being transparent. Telling kids these are my expectations of you, and now I’m going to give you feedback to meet those expectations.”

– Regional School Unit 2 Superintendent William Zima

For students who struggle – or one who misses a significant number of school days because of a health issue or family crisis – the proficiency-based learning system allows them to pick up where they left off. And students won’t fail an entire class because they blew the final, Zima said, because teachers will work with them to understand what was missed so that they can pass the class.

“Kids were falling through the cracks, and we didn’t really know why they were falling through the cracks because we didn’t know where the cracks were,” he said. “We were teaching chapters of text books or giant sections without thinking about what (else is in the book).”

Zima advises school districts new to the concept of proficiency-based learning to be clear about why they’re implementing the system. In RSU 2, the reason is to “cultivate hope in all learners.”

“When we say cultivate hope, we mean really building the skillset and mindset in kids that gives them that agency of ‘I have the power to make my life better’,” he said. “We need to create the learning opportunities that sets up kids knowing they have that skillset and mindset to succeed.”

A teacher’s perspective

Cyr, the Edward Little High School teacher, is the father of two daughters in Auburn schools, one in pre-K and one in first grade.

As a teacher, he likes the premise behind proficiency-based education.

“I like the idea that there are clearly defined benchmarks,” he said. “I like the concept that a student needs to demonstrate understanding of a benchmark before we move them on because it avoids pushing students when they are not ready to be moved on.”

However, Cyr expressed concern about how the system has been implemented and described a “steep learning curve” for teachers and parents when the switch to a 1-4 grading scale happened. Instead of As, Bs and Cs, everyone had to learn how the numbers correlated to performance.

The way it’s used in Lewiston schools, a ‘4’ is given only to a student who goes above and beyond what is taught in school.

I like the concept that a student needs to demonstrate understanding of a benchmark before we move them on because it avoids pushing students when they are not ready to be moved on.”

– Evan Cyr

“It’s been such a big shift, everyone is trying to figure out what does that mean for achievement?” he said. “What does achievement look like now? What does it mean to be doing well?”

In the old system, an A through a D- got some credit, but now all students must get at least a 3 to get credit, he said.

Another problem is that the 1-4 scale may mean different things in different school systems, so there’s a lack of consistency from district to district across the state.

“That’s sort of a window into how this mandate from the state failed,” he said. “They didn’t define what is proficiency. So you just have to do it.”

For Cyr, the state’s role in education should be to develop a common set of standards and let schools do the rest.

“Instead of defining what we should base the diploma on, I think we would be better served by the Department of Education defining a specific set of best practices they expect us to employ in our school systems,” he said.

Teacher finds ‘experimental nature’ concerning

While parents and teachers are raising serious questions about how proficiency-based education is working in Maine, they also question where it came from – and how it has been funded in some school districts.

Lewiston fourth-grade teacher Emily Talmage said she began looking into the origins of the program about three years ago when she was told there wasn’t enough money to pay for additional teachers even though class sizes were growing.

Emily Talmage, fourth-grade teacher at Montello School in Lewiston, ME. Photo by Gabe Souza.
Emily Talmage, fourth-grade teacher at Montello School in Lewiston. Photo by Gabe Souza.

When she requested a copy of the school district’s budget, she discovered that additional money was needed for professional development so teachers could learn about proficiency-based education.

“I have a master’s degree in special education and developmental psychology,” she said. “I never once ever heard that term. So that’s what sparked my journey.”

State lawmakers in 2012 passed a bill to require schools to begin issuing high school diplomas by 2021 based on student proficiency in eight areas. But the state left it up to the districts to figure out the best way to do it, leaving students, parents and some teachers confused and frustrated.

Talmage described the implementation of the new system as “trying to build a plane as we fly it.”

“I feel like most parents don’t know what it is at all,” she said. “The biggest thing is the experimental nature of it.”

Supporters of the proficiency-based learning system say it has worked well in some districts, including Regional School Unit 2, based in Hallowell. The district was working to adopt the system even before the state required it, and despite initial pushback from parents, Superintendent William Zima credits the program with an ability to better meet the needs of all students.

“Retention is a failed policy,” Zima said. “Social promotion is a failed policy. So, social progression with remediation is the thing that I find that works.”

The concerned parents question how the state’s Department of Education and state legislators could have adopted such a major change without evidence that the system worked in other states. Part of their concern is that money to implement proficiency-based learning has come from out of state, via the Massachusetts-based Nellie Mae Education .

Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates gave $2.4 million to Nellie Mae from 2010-2016, and millions more was awarded to Maine-based groups to implement proficiency-based learning, including schools and the Maine Department of Education, according to tax filings by the foundation. All told, more than $13 million has come in to Maine from Nellie Mae to support the new system in public schools.

In addition to that funding, the state has earmarked more than $8 million in funding to help districts implement the system, according to the Maine Department of Education.

Sen. Brian Langley (R-Ellsworth), who sponsored the original bill to create the new diploma system and current chairman of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, said his school district is thriving with the new system. He rejects the contention by parents that out-of-state money somehow drove the changes.

“If somebody’s looking to try to hang this on some mysterious conspiracy theory, on money from out of state, no that’s not it,” Langley said. “We’re just looking for better outcomes for kids.”

The roots of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation stretch back to 1990, when the student loan financing organization Nellie Mae Corporation created a nonprofit “pioneering philanthropy in the student loan industry,” according to its website.

The foundation has net assets of more than $487 million, according to its financial statements filed with the IRS in November 2017. And while its mission has changed over the years, it’s consistently supported “student-centered learning models” since 2010.

Following Talmage’s lead, Auburn parent Laura Garcia has now spent weeks looking through financial records and researching how proficiency-based learning came to Maine. She’s spoken to her local superintendent, school board, legislators and the governor’s office, hoping to get some traction on the idea that maybe Maine shouldn’t be a leader in a new type of education system.

“There’s enough turmoil in enough school districts across the state that there needs to be an honest conversation with legislators, the Department of Education and the governor’s office,” Garcia said. “Was this a well-thought-out plan or was this an attempt to secure funding for something that looked like it had potential?”

What’s next

At the State House, the topic of proficiency-based education surfaced earlier this year when Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, submitted a bill to allow a one-year delay in implementation of the diploma requirement.

During a work session on the bill, Rep. Heidi Sampson (R-Alfred) tried to introduce an amendment to kill the proficiency-based diploma law entirely. Sampson, a vocal critic of the system, argued there’s no evidence showing it works.

As a result of the pushback by Sampson and others, the Maine Department of Education submitted a bill to remove the mandate that districts base a diploma on proficiency. The department wanted an open process that would include a public hearing and work session, noting in a March 30 notice that it wants the “discussion to be an open dialog.”

The notice states that the bill would not change anything for school districts currently using proficiency-based diplomas if they want to keep the system.

“Under the department’s proposal, school districts may continue to teach, grade and structure learning as they determine best meets the needs of students, parents and the school community,” the department said.

That means nothing would change for the nine schools ready to issue proficiency-based diplomas in June: RSU 2; Yarmouth; Winthrop; RSU 60 (North Berwick, Berwick & Lebanon); SAD 61 (Sebago, Casco, Naples, Bridgton); RSU 24 (Eastbrook, Steuben, Sullivan, Prospect Harbor); RSU 14 (Raymond, Windham) and SAD 75 (Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Harpswell, Topsham).


Susan Cover

Susan Cover has been a journalist for 24 years, working at newspapers in Kansas, Rhode Island, Ohio and Maine. In 2002, Susan moved to Maine to cover state government and spent 10 years in the Statehouse Bureau working for the Kennebec Journal. She covered state budgets, hundreds of bills, and referenda campaigns including bear baiting and marriage equality. In 2013, Susan was promoted to city editor at the Kennebec Journal, leading a team of reporters and photographers to put out each day’s paper. Susan is a graduate of Muskingum University in Ohio and has a master’s degree in newspaper journalism from Syracuse University. Most recently, Susan left daily newspaper journalism to pursue freelance writing and her other passion – taking run-down houses in Kennebec County and bringing them back to life. She lives in Augusta with her partner and their pets – Piper the cat and Wooley the dog.
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