Proficiency-Based Education and Professional Development

October 23, 2015

 

I’m preparing to facilitate a proficiency-based education (PBE) conference session later this month. As part of the planning process, I have reflected upon my experience with PBE professional development (PD) across districts. Here, I present part one of a series that outlines strategies I use (and hope to refine) in order to cultivate effective, productive PBE PD. As a facilitator, my objective is to provide teachers with skills needed to navigate challenges and celebrate curricular victories embedded in PBE implementation.

 

The early stages of the change process often focus on setting norms and assessing the group dynamic. What role does each teacher or administrator play? There are many adaptations of a model with four generalized categories:

  • The proactive

  • The purpose-seekers

  • The plan-makers

  • The peacekeepers

The essential questions, here, are: How might we leverage our individual strengths to be empathetic, efficient, and productive participants in the implementation process? Is it the facilitator’s role to provide professional learning opportunities that help strike a balance, to ensure that all four of the above types are engaged, get their questions answered, and can move forward?

 

Purpose often takes precedent. It’s best practice to provide students with a purpose for learning new content; the same applies to adult learners. “Why PBE?” must come first, and the answer must be carefully framed. This can be difficult, especially in Maine where proficiency-based diplomas are tied to legislation. PD will be neither positive nor productive if presented as “we have to do this because it is the law.” Teachers should want to rethink assessment and grading practices because students deserve learning opportunities that are authentic, support growth, and are not inherently punitive.

 

Let’s be honest: Garnering 100% teacher buy-in about anything is like herding cats. Idealistically, if there’s one thing that we can agree on, it’s that we teach to support students. When I facilitate PBE sessions, I accept that every participant may not be completely on board - yet. Eventually, it’s necessary to press forward from the “why” to the “how” and hope that reluctant adopters jump on board as a result of curriculum tuning and “rubber-hits-the-road” classroom evidence.

 

As conversations shift from “why” to “how,” I’ve noticed common threads. The practice of aligning units to standards is not new; neither is the need to differentiate or the backwards-design approach to assessment. Many schools have adopted school-wide rubrics that assess a range of skills from citizenship to writing. Understandably, recent initiatives toward a proficiency-based model may strike some teachers as the “next new thing.”

 

When facilitating PD, I validate the countless hours that teachers have devoted to the tasks above. Teachers work hard. Amazing, engaging learning experiences occur in classrooms every day. PBE is not the new “edutrend;” it’s the next logical step in a pattern of reflection and improvement. The adoption of a proficiency-based model yields curricular transparency and reflective inquiry. As we consider our previous work, it is important to ask:

  • How well do existing assessments demonstrate mastery of aligned learning objectives?

  • Does our rubric language clearly communicate what students can do and how they could improve or exceed?

  • Have we differentiated to provide multiple pathways towards meeting a standard, or have we created tiers that measure levels of mastery or even different standards?

These conversations are necessary to find the true starting point of the implementation process. Through my work with teachers across Maine and New England, it is evident that a district/building-level proficiency journey is no different from a student’s pathway to content mastery. Every school and teacher is unique. We must embrace, collectively, the need to continue conversations regarding what products we are assessing; how we are scoring; and where and when we provide communication and feedback.

 

My next posts will address details to consider when establishing a timeline and strategies to assuage potential teacher anxieties embedded in the change process. I strive to debunk misconceptions that PBE is a wrecking ball threatening to raze our curricular houses and rather invoke a call to inspect for leaks in the learning process and provide blueprints to remodel accordingly. It is less about dramatic change and more about doing what we do best better.

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