• Sara Needleman

One Maine School District’s Shift to Proficiency, Part One

Schools and school districts find themselves on the path to proficiency-based education (PBE) for a range of reasons and once there, they make all kinds of discoveries. Many of them unforeseen. As I spoke with Deb Taylor, the Director of Curriculum and Technology in RSU 12 in southern Maine, I heard a tale of a school district initially interested in complying with the law and ultimately taking a very close look at teaching and learning. It’s a great story.

What led RSU 12 to first explore PBE?

In 2012 the state passed LD 1422 establishing that students would graduate high school with proficiency-based diplomas. Since their district included a high school at that time, they realized the law would impact them. According to Deb, “Our admin team began to explore the law and the practices that would support it. We did a book study of Bea McGarvey’s book, Inevitable, which focuses on mass customized learning. That study prompted us to do some school visits across the state to see the work others were doing. We didn’t realize what we didn’t know until we were exposed.”

What did the evolution from “just exploring” to “starting to get it” look like?

The administration was immediately attracted to what they saw and what they could envision for their own district. They realized this was an opportunity for fresh and new ideas in general, not just an chance to re-examine graduation requirements. They quickly shifted the focus away from the mandate of the high school diploma to implementation at the elementary level. Deb says, “that felt like less of a leap. Since there were more structures that looked like PBE in place at those grade levels, that transition would be smoother.”

The next step was to explore reporting systems. Deb admits that she’s “not sure why we went straight from our process of thoughtful exploration to examination of tools to support the practice. Now that seems like a weird leap.” The truth is, JumpRope has been part of that “weird leap” for a lot of schools and districts. Deb went on to repeat that given the new law, which came with available funds, as well as the absence of guidelines for how to spend the funds, they turned to purchasing a tool. That felt manageable. Getting the tool was concrete.

She recalls that as they first adopted JumpRope, they were not fully aware of the depth and range of changes they would see in practice. “The change in reporting system is easy, but the change in practice that underlies it is hard. Really hard.” We agree.

Implementing JumpRope and shifting their reporting system was an entry point for RSU 12. That entry point gave them a map; a visual to see where to go. Again, like other schools and districts, once they began to use JumpRope to track evidence of proficiency, they were equipped to have data-driven conversations about learning and teaching. We’ve heard from other users that conversations which were abstract or even seemingly too challenging to have, were much easier and more fruitful once teachers could see how to collect, sort and analyze data.

Were there any key moves along the way?

One point to mention is the secession of their high school from the district early in the change process. That shift really gave them permission to focus on practice as opposed to the diploma. Another development in RSU 12’s adoption process was the appearance of some new faces in central office leadership. With those people on board, the admin team “collectively was drawn to JumpRope’s design, approach, and the way it’s programmed.” Deb says, “Jumprope's perspective continually came across as first about education and second about a tech tool to make mastery reporting work. That felt comfortable.

Perhaps most notably, RSU 12 was given the explicit suggestion not to start with the tool, but chose against that idea. They had a group of teachers who had been part of the early conversations and were eager to pilot JumpRope, so they went with that momentum. They saw the use of JumpRope as a way to force their own hand around changing structure. They also knew that using the reporting system as a leverage point with parents would help the transition. The complete overhaul to the system of reporting on learning was a very clear signal to the community. They knew this would lead to some tension while the whole district worked to align practice with reporting, but now, three years later, they have teachers clamoring for more support to shift their practice. As Deb describes the changes in her district, “now it’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t know what PBE was, let alone how transformative it would be for our students.”

Stay tuned for a follow-up post that will discuss Deb’s thoughts on what could have gone better and advice she has for other districts making this transition.

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