Proficiency based learning: The dangers of leveling the playing field

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There are some basic lessons in motivation and behavior that Vermont's Proficiency Based Learning education initiative could learn from this fall's high school state championships. Watching the games, it was a thrill to see these young athletes use the skills they gained through intense training to push themselves toward accomplishing their goal. As they celebrated on the field, drenched in sweat with huge smiles on their faces, it was impossible not to get swept up in their glory.

Imagine how different sports would be if scoring was unclear and decisive winners weren't allowed. This is what we've done with our state's education system. Proficiency Based Learning ("PBL") is the great equalizer — the goal is to make sure everyone is proficient, with many schools implementing new Proficiency Based Grading ("PBG") that makes it nearly impossible to determine how a student is doing relative to the rest of the class. PBG makes it difficult to recognize and celebrate high academic achievement.

While some districts chose to delay adopting PBG, many districts jumped right in. Achievement in my district is distinguished by a 1/100th point margin on a 5-point scale, though it's really only a 2-point scale since you need between a 3-5 to graduate. Students do not know exactly how they are performing throughout the year, since only end-of-year scores are used to determine the final course grades.

Why have so many districts eradicated the 0-100 scale? I watched my son train for soccer all summer, working to get his speed and stamina better so that he could be one step faster on the ball. Scale and clarity matter so students can understand if they have achieved that extra step advantage that they're working towards.

Students need to know where they stand every step of the way. Imagine what would happen to player motivation if teams didn't know exactly how they did after each game, and rankings for playoffs were only provided at the end of the season after some confusing, nontransparent determination.

When Vermont began its adoption of PBL, parents who pushed back on PBG were told by superintendents that PBG was an Agency of Education ("AOE") requirement. Now, the AOE is saying that PBG was always voluntary. Yet, the AOE never issued any written guidance stating this until long after many districts had already shifted to PBG. It's time for the AOE to take responsibility for the negative repercussions to BFA-St. Albans students and others throughout this state.

PBL is touted as "allowing students to progress at their own pace and creating the space and time to do so." We are working toward the goal of career and college readiness for our students, yet where will this approach equate to success? How do the PBL practices of allowing retakes and only counting end-of-year grades help prepare students for the rigors of college or the workplace? Our students need to develop the discipline to have a consistently high work rate if they are going to succeed in the real world.

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The depressing and lackluster scenario of sports without victory is no different than Vermont's PBL. Last year, frustrated Stowe High School students presented a self-administered survey that showed students found PBL to be demotivating. Shortly afterwards, the VT NEA teacher survey confirmed that PBL is a demotivator to students. Yet, educational decision makers have ignored these voices. They cite questionable "research studies" as their justification for plowing ahead.

Longstanding, successful teams always draw the biggest crowds. Similarly, high performing schools attract the largest number of young families. Vermont's anemic influx of new families will only get worse as our national education standing continues to drop, evidenced by the trajectory of our NAEP scores.

In the upcoming Governor's race, we have Rebecca Holcombe, the former Secretary of Education who masterminded Vermont's PBL initiative, versus Phil Scott, the current Governor who has refused to clean up the PBL mess. Which one should we root for? The candidate who will pledge to follow the lead of Maine, where PBL was found to be a colossal failure and mandates were eradicated in 2018. We need a leader who can provide a clear game plan to: eliminate PBL mandates, get our children back on track learning, and stop the mind-boggling waste of money.

It's important to remember that PBL was initiated through the Vermont Board of Education's approval in 2014. The Board of Education also needs to take personal responsibility and take action.

Let's get back to the basic goal of teaching and motivating students so they are academically prepared for the challenges ahead. Give teachers their time back to prepare to teach, rather than forcing them to enter hundreds of different PBG scores for each student.

Let our students go back to nervously preparing for each test, pushing toward high achievement, getting their game face on, making it through the challenge, and walking out of the classroom wiping the sweat off their brow with a smile on their face.

Leigh Pelletier is a former member of the Stowe School Board and the Lamoille South Supervisory Union School Board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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