Editor's Note: This is the first post in a three-part series. Please look for Part II, Reassessment and Redesign, in the coming weeks.
I was listening to Jennifer Gonzalez’s Cult of Pedagogy podcast recently, and something she said struck me as the perfect way to begin this post about the importance of working together in a Proficiency-Based Education (PBE) model. In episode 72, “What is an Educator Mastermind, and Why Should You Join One?,” Gonzalez said, “One of the crazy ironies of working in education is that we spend so much time surrounded by other human beings, but still work in isolation. That’s because the “other human beings” who fill up our days are mostly students; only a fraction of that time is spent in with our colleagues, other professionals who do the same work we do.” This is a widely-accepted truth of educational systems in our country; however, educational professionals’ lack of communication with each other isn’t doing our students any good.
In a PBE model, a school district adopts graduation standards which are essentially broken down into performance indicators (measurement topics, learning goals, etc.), which are then taught to students through learning targets (objectives, goals, etc.). A student’s ability to graduate is determined by proficiency relative to the graduation standards. The kind of work that goes into successfully implementing a PBE model is not to be done in isolation. The traditional system of education is outdated, and along those same lines, so is the era of classroom teachers having autonomy over whether or not a student is prepared for the next step. For the PBE model to really work, all the stakeholders within a learning community must have a voice in determining what proficiency means and looks like, and educators must collaborate in an effort to create common experiences and expectations across practice.
Collaborative Implementation at the District Level
In the Gorham School District, collaborative work is essential at the district committee level. The voices represented on the Proficiency Based Learning Steering Committee (past and present) range from teachers and students to parents and local business owners. This assemblage of stakeholders is tasked with determining what it means for Gorham students to be proficient in different subjects at different levels of their education. The inclusion of all stakeholders ensures that multiple points of view are valuable in the decision-making process. If we made the mistake of keeping such decisions isolated just to those working within the school district, we would never hear from students who are the direct consumers of this work; parents, who want to ensure that their children are prepared for successful futures; and business owners, who will be responsible for hiring our next generation of workers.
Collaborating Across Content Areas and Beyond
Once our mission and vision and core beliefs were redesigned by district committees in alignment with PBE, our focus became graduation standards and performance indicators. At Gorham Middle School (GMS), the teachers of specific content areas addressed this work; our collaboration occurred during designated monthly professional development hours for more than a year and continues to occur today. Using the Common Core to shape our work, the English Language Arts (ELA) department at GMS first proposed eight Graduation Standards; over time, implementation, reflection, and discussion at the school- and district-level, the ELA Graduation Standards were reduced to four: Reading, Writing, Research, and Speaking and Listening. The decision-making around the ELA Graduation Standards came from representative voices on behalf of the middle school, as well as the other four schools in our district and two district-level committees.
Grade Level Collaboration
Some of the hardest collaboration to find time for is at the true heart of the PBE model; when teachers collaborate with their colleagues, they can analyze grade-level data and strengthen their educational practice.
In his book Leaders of Their Own Learning, Ron Berger seamlessly captures the elements of a successful PBE model, including teacher-to-teacher collaboration. Berger tells us that in order to guide students through using data to inform their learning (a hallmark of a PBE model), teachers must be able to first use the data themselves. In chapter 3, under the heading, ‘Support Teachers to Deepen Their Practice,’ Berger writes, “Set up structure with faculty members to continually analyze results and the impact of the practice on student achievement” (123). Berger refers to the value of this work being done together when he further writes, “School leaders and teachers collect and analyze student achievement data as well as data on progress toward state and Common Core standards, habits of work, and student engagement. Often a robust faculty practice of data collection and analysis leads to bringing data practices into the classroom to use with students” (126). When teachers collaborate to analyze student data, the pool of data increases, and the analysis itself is deeper because more insights are contributed. If a goal of the PBE model is to ensure that all students achieve proficiency, then it is integral for grade level teachers to collaborate over student data in order to create a viable and worthy standard for achievement.
The shift to a PBE model asks us to change paradigms. It’s time for schools and school districts to make time for the vital work of teacher collaboration. In a PBE model, all students are expected to achieve at benchmark levels of proficiency prior to graduation. Defining those benchmarks, outlining the steps students need to take to achieve them, and designing valid corresponding assessments not only should, but must be done in collaborative teams. Agreement on targets and assessments is central to this practice. If we are true to our commitment to helping all students succeed, we would be remiss to neglect the collaboration necessary for effective implementation of the PBE model.
Megh teaches sixth grade English Language Arts and social studies at Gorham Middle School in Gorham, Maine, where she is also co-advisor of the Civil Rights Team. @msroundstweets