Marathon public hearing illuminates debate on proficiency-based learning

For nearly six hours, Joint Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs heard arguments from teachers, parents and students on the pros and cons of proficiency-based learning.
The dome of the Maine State House
The Maine State House. Photo by MonsieurNapoléon/ Wikimedia.

For close to six hours Monday afternoon, the Joint Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs at the State House heard arguments from an overflow crowd of concerned teachers, parents and students on the pros and cons of proficiency-based learning.

In 2012, state legislators passed a law that requires high school students to show they have mastered eight subject areas in order to earn a proficiency-based diploma: 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.

The new diploma system was one of the major education initiatives championed by Gov. Paul LePage during his first term in office.

For over 20 years, Maine has had a set of learning standards that it uses as the foundation for what’s being taught across the state. The 2012 law that requires diplomas to be awarded based on proficiency has come under heavy scrutiny in recent months as some Maine schools close in on their first PBL graduation date, and even more schools start to work toward that graduation requirement.

Committee members on Monday listened to public testimony on three bills before the Legislature that relate to the awarding of high school diplomas based on the PBL system of education:

  • 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.” The Department of Education and the LePage Administration back this measure.
  • Bill L.D. 1900 repeals the requirement that Maine students receive a proficiency-based diploma.
  • Bill L.D. 1666 ensures the successful implementation of proficiency-based diplomas by extending the timeline for phasing in their implementation.

After listening to hours of testimony, committee member Rep. Heidi Sampson (R-Alfred) isn’t sure which way her colleagues will vote when they reconvene for a working session on Friday.

“I don’t think I know where it goes from here,” said Sampson. “My motion for repeal of the mandate is still in place. And I’m not going to back down on that.”

Mary Paine, director of strategic initiatives for the Maine Department of Education, spoke on behalf of the administration and its support for L.D. 1898.

“The best thing about a standards-based learning system is that it can allow for all kinds of innovative teaching and learning experiences — some we have yet to imagine,” Paine said. “But it is clear to me that asking schools to figure out how students will demonstrate proficiency in eight content areas of the Maine Learning Results in order to earn a diploma is bringing out the worst in a standards-based system.”

Paine argued against repealing the proficiency-based diploma (L.D. 1900) entirely.

“Under the department’s proposal, we would peel back one confusing layer of the law, make more reasonable the requirements for a diploma, and in doing so give schools clear license and encouragement to be innovative in their approach to education,” Paine said.

Several of those who spoke to committee members on Monday are connected to education associations within the state, including Dick Durost of the Maine Principals Association, who spoke in favor of L.D. 1898 and against L.D. 1900.

“There are many who wish we had not tied proficiency-based diplomas as tightly to proficiency-based education as we did,” Durost said. “We now have an opportunity to merge what is best for students with some thought to local control.”

Adoption rates of proficiency-based education differ around the state. Some school districts, like SAD 61 (Bridgton, Casco, Naples and Sebago) and RSU 2 (Dresden, Farmingdale, Hallowell and Monmouth) have plowed ahead, trained teachers, changed curriculum, and are on pace to graduate students this June with proficiency-based diplomas.

Seven other districts will also be awarding proficiency-based diplomas this year, with two more scheduled for 2019, 10 more in 2020, and the rest of the state’s high schools by 2021. How school districts administer proficiency-based education is up to each district.

Two SAD 61 students who are just weeks away from earning their proficiency-based diplomas spoke against both L.D. 1898 & L.D. 1900 on Monday.

Aisley Sturk and Olivia Deschenes, both seniors at Lake Region High School, shared how the shift to proficiency-based learning has had a positive impact on their education.

“PBL is more clear and efficient than traditional education ever was,” Sturk said. “Moreover, PBL clearly articulates whether a student has met a standard or not. The purpose of PBL is for students to master the skills they will need in life. It has helped me gain essential skills that I will use for life.”

“I’m being challenged to demonstrate my understanding in both a long-term and short-term manner. It makes education fair for all students,” Deschenes said. “Do we want to prevent students from reaching their full potential as learners?”

Sturk and Deschenes were joined by Lake Region High teacher Jessica DiBiase, who also opposes both 1898 & 1900, saying she doesn’t want the hard work put in by her and her colleagues wasted.

“Having the PBL diploma gives me structure for my class,” said DiBiase. “Being able to tell kids that I know where they need to be, and where that end result is, has been a difference-maker in my classroom.”

Committee co-chair Victoria Kornfield (D-Bangor) pressed DiBiase about what would motivate a student to stay in school if they’re not likely on a path toward a diploma and the mastering of the eight PBL subject areas.

DiBiase admitted that that’s a concern of hers, too.

“It’s a struggle. I wish I could answer that question, but it’s absolutely a struggle,” DeBiase said.

Not all teachers on hand Monday were as positive about the switch to PBL.

Physical education teacher Jack Kaplan said PBL has caused enormous stress at his school, Carrabec High School in Anson in Somerset County.

“I stand in opposition of proficiency-based learning. I’ve seen a tremendous amount of stress level at my school because of this,” said Kaplan. “The staff, teachers, the principal, the kids, the parents. Everyone attached to proficiency-based learning is stressed by this.

“I think we’re on the wrong path. Our job is to inspire. I don’t see how these laws have inspired us. If anything, I have seen really good people driven out of the education business because they don’t want to deal with this.”

Parents Laura Garcia and Barbara Howaniec expressed concern over the 1-4 grading system being used in Auburn schools and how the new education process has impacted their high-achieving students. Garcia spoke in favor of L.D. 1898, while Howaniec spoke in favor of L.D. 1900 (which would eliminate PBL-diploma requirements).

“My son tells me that he can’t get a 4 because he says, ‘We haven’t been taught that.’ They get one shot at (an education),” Howaniec told the committee “I want them to achieve optimal potential, not proficiency. I want them to reach for the stars, and they’re not being encouraged to do so, except at home.”

Garcia told the committee that her daughter is bored in math class because she is forced to work ahead while other members of her class struggle with PBL.

“The motivation of students is dropping. Students who once excelled are being told they can’t get anything more than a 3,” Garcia said. “My daughter sat for weeks in her math class because she had moved ahead of what they were teaching in class. She’s bored in class.”

When asked about how schools encourage kids to strive beyond proficiency in a 1-4 grading system, RSU 2 Superintendent Bill Zima said it’s still up to educators to challenge high-achieving students.

“We work really, really hard to encourage kids to go above and beyond the proficiency level,” said Zima, whose district will graduate its third PBL class this spring. “We have a lot of kids who work well beyond proficient to get to the next level. In our system of grading, we are a 1-4 – 3 is proficient, 4 is ‘of excellence.’ A student has to truly exceed to earn a 4, but students are learning how to do it.”

Jeffrey Shedd, principal at Cape Elizabeth High School, took on the sensitive subject of local control over education.

“We have made a fetish of local control,” said Shedd, who also has been a principal in Bath and Topsham. “Until we stop it, we will not progress.

“Over 10 years ago, I testified before the Legislature about the fundamental flaw in Maine’s approach to improving the preparedness of Maine’s high school graduates. That flaw is this: As long as Maine refuses to establish state assessments tied to state standards – instead of leaving each school system to do that work – there will be, in reality, no meaningful state standard, and local school districts will unintentionally, but inevitably, engage themselves in a race to the bottom.”

To Shedd, the idea of allowing more state control into local districts, is about fairness.

“At a fundamental level, there is a question about fairness,” said Shedd, who spoke in opposition to L.D. 1898. “Is there a common playing field? I don’t think there is with local assessment systems. I think fundamentally, a state assessment system would leave teachers free to do what they do best, which is teach really well.

“Trying to come up with a statewide assessment creates a common ground.”

On Friday, the Joint Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs will vote on the three bills. If all members vote against a bill, it dies in committee. If any one of the committee members votes for a bill, it moves to the full House.

After Monday’s session, Sampson, the Alfred Republican, said she and the other 12 committee members had heard from nearly 100 teachers who support L.D. 1900 but couldn’t attend the hearing.

“The feedback from teachers has poured in. I would say, that from what I read, it’s 10-to-1 in favor of full appeal from teachers,” she said. “These are all original emails. No cut and paste. From all over the state, from York to Orono. The response has been staggering.”


Daniel Dinsmore

Dan Dinsmore is the executive director of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting and the editor and publisher of The Maine Monitor. An award-winning journalist with 27 years of media experience, Dan lives in the Lakes Region with his wife, four kids and way too many dogs.
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