#pbgrVT work day

Thursday I attended a Proficiency-Based Learning Work Day at South Burlington High School. The purpose of these work days is to examine and help refine the work of other educators who are implementing proficiency based learning in their schools and classes.

Unlike a typical conference, most presentations utilized either a tuning or consultancy protocol. The presenter had a dilemma or sample of student work which became the center of discussion. The first two sessions I attended used the consultancy protocol. I heard from the head of an independent school struggling with how to quantify proficiency, and from a technical education teacher wondering how to communicate the expectations of his proficiency based assessment to his students. It was different from any professional development experience I have ever had. Rather than being talked at by an expert, we addressed the concern of a fellow educator through a rich discussion. It provided a window into the current practices and problems people are facing when it comes to proficiencies. A++ would participate again.

Representatives from the Agency of Education were on hand for a Q&A session about proficiency based learning initiatives at the state level. Tom Alderman made some comments to the whole group about the current policy environment. Basically, PBGR is on its way. The groundwork is set in Act 77. It’s in the draft Education Quality Standards. There are funds available for schools willing to implement PBGR and Personal Learning Plans for all students sooner rather than later. The essential message was that The Agency is there to support PBGR implementation, but it’s up to educators in the field to get the real work rolling.

By the end of the last session of the afternoon, I had developed a severe educator-crush on Math Henchen from Harwood Union High School. Matt’s session was a deliberative dialogue on the specifics of proficiency-based assessment systems. The goal was to build consensus on the meaning of various terms related to PBGR as well as some general best practices. Matt shared a Google Doc where questions could be posted, and which also includes useful PBGR resources.

I came away with a few big ideas from Matt’s session. The first was what he described as a “Two Tier System” of proficiencies which I feel has significant implications for curriculum. The first tier includes the basic competencies required of all students. The second tier encompasses the specializations that a student can choose to pursue. Something Matt stressed that struck a chord with me was the need to decide on the first tier of proficiencies as a community. It made me think about our school as we work to develop a K-12 curriculum, and whether members of the community will have an opportunity to review and help shape that work.

Matt also got us thinking about the need to balance standardization and personalization. Proficiencies are a form of standardization; they are a set of outcomes required of all students. But to be successful, there needs to be a degree of personalization in how evidence of meeting those proficiencies is acquired. We require common educational outcomes, but also to acknowledge that students and teachers are at their best when they can leverage their own affinities.

The last big idea I took from Matt’s session was to consider the differences between Lenin and Bernstein. Lenin was an advocate of revolutionary socialism; that revolution was necessary to effect social change. Bernstein, by contrast, formed the idea of evolutionary socialism; socialism is the final result of liberal reforms which will occur slowly over time. When it comes to PBGR implementation, we should be like Bernstein. As well meaning as we are, if we try to drag educators kicking and screaming towards proficiencies we are likely to fail. Instead we can take small steps, always with the larger goal in mind.

Ultimately I found a common thread that ran through each session and the conversations I had. Teachers and schools need clarity of purpose. Proficiency based learning and assessment requires explicit expectations, and the hardest work comes from making the tough decisions about what every student needs to know and be able to do, and to have high expectations for their work. Everybody has a different answer, but somehow a community needs to build consensus.

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1 Comment

  1. Yowza. I’m not even approaching this level of inquiry regarding Proficiency Based Grading. The idea that students can pursue “specializations” makes me excited– both for my students and for the potential in my lesson plans.

    One of the things that I find most intriguing about Proficiency Based Grading is the the capacity for conversation with students around strengths and weaknesses in their performance. One can, through these conversations, push persistence, which I think the traditional mastery model does not encourage.

    Anyway, thanks for the post. Truly thought provoking.


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