I recently listened to Mike McRaith, Principal of Montpelier High School reflect on his experiences in high school with Mr. Jeffery, his high school history teacher. He described the experience of having a great relationship with Mr. Jeffery and how fun class was. At one point in the year, Mr. Jeffery gave a writing assignment and asked that the students write their name on the back of the paper so that he could assess the paper without bias. When Mike received his feedback, Mr. Jeffery graded the writing as a B. However, when Mike turned the paper over Mr. Jeffery had crossed out the B and given Mike an A when he realized that it was Mike’s paper. What does this example tell us about traditional grading practices? It certainly reminds us about the importance of relationships and when most of us reflect about school our memories are often about people, how they remember their school experience, and less about the content. Going back to Mike’s example about the assessment, I can’t help but think about how our work towards a proficiency-based system has a huge equity component. Meaning that while we want to have good relationships with students we really need to consider that students’ progress towards academic proficiency needs to be separate from how we assess their habits of work.
In 1928, John Dewey stated that our education system needs to be dynamic and about student growth. This can be interpreted as education should not be about ranking and sorting but about student learning in a public education system that is free and appropriate. What Dewey was speaking about was students showing proficiency in a system that was based on student voice and choice (AKA: Personalization). It’s amazing to think that Dewey was talking about the very thing we are trying to do almost 100 years later!
Systems work is hard especially when considering public education. When thinking about systems and structures in our work towards implementing a proficiency-based system, we need to consider how does our decision points impact...
- Learner agency? Meaning how do we create student voice and choice
- Equity? Meaning, how does this impact marginalized groups
- Public will? Meaning, how can we be proactive about our decisions with communication
What’s different with PBL?
Thomas Gusky argues that our current grading practices do the job for college admissions offices, which in his mind makes little sense when considering what’s at the heart of education: student learning. Practices again that include ranking and sorting students, GPA, and honors. Some call this the Bell Curve Model do not create equitable opportunities for kids. We are moving away from this Normative-Based system or bell curve model that “selects talent” and are now focusing on a Criterion-Based system where we “develop talent” with the goal of giving students the skills to be successful in a variety of environments after they leave high school. With that being said, as we develop these proficiencies, we need to ensure that proficiencies be achievable for every kid. Some might argue that this approach is “dumbing” down our expectations. However, with PBL educators can now consider academic programming and enriching activities in meaningful ways that have an emphasis on deeper learning. Programming that includes flexible pathways and opportunities to shine in different ways through PLPs. Mike Martin, Curriculum Director of South Burlington, states that the end game with this approach is not just about focusing on preparing students to be college and career ready but student retention in programs beyond secondary education. If you consider the statistic of college dropout rates currently for Vermont students we need to be thinking about how we can do things differently. We do a great job of getting students to college but roughly 40% of Vermont students who attend college do not earn a 4 year degree. Couple that with the increasing college debt that students accrue and we have a very real problem with our education system. Again, we need to think about education differently.
Thinking about doing things differently, take this into account: In 7 seconds you can look up the atomic weight of Cobalt with Siri or the “The Google”. Technology has had a profound impact on how we attain knowledge. Considering the advances in technology, our conversation about education should now be more about developing skills and less on content. Proficiency is about skills and content and while we want teachers to have strong backgrounds in their content, it is more about building students’ skills. There needs to be a collective efficacy where skills and achievement are directly correlated to transferrable skills like problem solving, communication, perseverance, grit, and growth mindset. Skills like these will prepare students for careers that don't currently exist.