Saturday, November 11, 2017

Inside a Proficiency Based Classroom [updated]

Robbie Feinberg took a trip into a Maine classroom for NPR, trying to see what things look like in the state that has shifted to Proficiency-Based Education (aka Competency Based Education, aka some form of Personalized Learning aka in the 90s Outcome Based Education). You know that I have my doubts about this bold new not-so-new idea (see here, here, and here for starters). But the devilish proof is in the details of the pudding, so let's see what Feinberg found.

The piece opens with a "first thing you notice" anecdote. At Oak Hill, Feinberg first notices that there are sticky notes on desks, colored pink, green and blue depending on whether the students are on pace, a little ahead or a little behind. And the students have their seat for the day based on the color of their sticky note. And I'm already thinking, yes, that's cool, and we could spark it up by calling them the bluebirds and the green alligators and the cardinals, because this sure seems familiar to anyone who went to school a several decades ago. Did I mention that the school Feinberg is profiling is a high school, not an elementary school?

Once in their group, they get out a "personal learning plan," which is basically a checklist of the tasks they have to perform (aka the worksheets they have to finish) in order to complete this particular month's worth of stuff. And I'm going to go ahead and jump in here to say, with all due respect to the teachers who are doing this stuff, that this is not personalized learning, because personalized learning is about each student pursuing her own path to achieve her own goals. This is personalized pacing (a fact underlined by the fact that it's marked on a Pace Chart)-- each student is following exactly the same path, just at his or her own speed.

The teacher? The teacher occasionally presents mini-lectures and leads discussions, but mostly he floats around the room and "checks in" with each student as the students slogs her way through the batch of tasks. How does this particular teacher feel about it?

“The reason why I like it is because I get to talk to every single student,” he says. “One-on-one. Which never used to happen 10 years ago. There would be months going by, and I wouldn’t have a conversation with a student. So at least this way, I’m able to talk with every student a little bit at a time each day.”

Yeah, if it never happened ten years ago, and you went months without talking to students, that is totally on you, not the educational system.

In this particular district, the advent of this new system coincided with the merger of three districts, so the schools were already wrestling with a loss of local control. But like the comment about conversations, some of what they are saying about the new system is hard for me to see sense in.

The old system of grading A-F "would have to go," and in its place is a system of grades marks 1-4. Yes, that's quite a game changer there. The school hired consultants to help them deal with the new system, and the school watched a whole bunch of teachers, including, apparently, "really good, popular" ones, head out the door over the shift (the superintendent says he was glad to see them go).

Some of what is mentioned in the article is more that just befuddling-- it's appalling. The school sends out a list of "behind" students to parents, so not only do students get to suffer the public embarrassment of having to sit in the front of the room with the bluebirds, but their behind-ness is published to the world. I can't think of a single educational justification for that action-- not one at all. If you are reading this, Oak Hill administration, you should stop that right now. [Update: Feinberg reached out to me to clarify that the failure notices are sent individually to parents of students who are behind, for their own student. So not quite as horrifying. I will also clarify however, that my "stop it right now" also applies to seating by current progress.]

[Update: Since many have asked-- the article does refer some student reaction. Students note that the teachers roles is basically to tell the to stop talking and get back to work.]

It is possible that Feinberg belongs in the reporter bluebird group*, but the picture that emerges from his story is not of a school that's on the cutting edge of anything educational. Students have a pile of worksheets and other assigned tasks to work through, teachers don't so much teach as try to push them along through the stack, and students are ranked on whether they are ahead, behind, or on pace. Nothing in the article hints at true personalization, and nothing addresses the tricky issues (what happens when the year is over and the bluebirds are still behind by forty or fifty tasks-- what happens to them then, or the next fall?) And all of that is before we even get to the thorny pedagogical questions of whether or not these sort of tasks truly show that a student has mastered a skill or a chunk of knowledge. Can education really be reduced to a checklist of tasks (and that is what Oak Hill is described as having-- the teacher literally stops by the student to check off tasks on a list).

This could be a school from fifty or sixty years ago. There's certainly nothing admirable or inspiring here, certainly nothing cutting edge. I have always argued that PBL/CBE/Personalized Learning would end up delivering far less than it promised, but even I didn't imagine it would be this much less. As I said, it may be that Feinberg simply dropped the ball (and, I should note, this article is first in series). Maybe something magical is happening at Oak Hill that he didn't see. But if this piece is an accurate portrayal of what the PBL classrooms of Maine look like, the rest of us should run-- not walk-- in the opposite direction.

Oh, and this is the first article in a series. Stay tuned for more.

*Check the comments for more about Feinberg.


  1. What is the "P" in "PBL"? I'm used to that as the acronym for Problem-Based Learning which as far as I know has pretty much nothing to do with the situation you describe at Oak Hill. So I'm thinking it must stand for something else.

  2. "Yeah, if it never happened ten years ago, and you went months without talking to students, that is totally on you, not the educational system."

    And that teacher surely must have been lacking in having supervisors who would have/should have recognized that the teacher was not communicating with those students, eh!

  3. Any guesses who pays Feinbergs (the reporters) salary? That's right - Nellie Mae, same folks who paid for our PBE law in 2012 and pay the consultants who are turning our education system upside down ...

    1. Took a job teaching in New Mexico rather than apply for that reporting job. Since I'd worked for MPBN before, I was afraid I might get the position.

      Sickened me to think of the soul-blackening necessary for pretending to cover education while flakking for software profiteers and ruining teachers' careers.

  4. Esto no suena bien. El aprendizaje es una acci├│n sociable.

  5. Dear Mr. Greene and Commentors:

    I read this article on Proficiency Based Learning in Maine. Thanks for bringing it to everyone’s attention, Mr. Greene. I would like to agree with everything Mr. Greene already brought up and add:

    I’m not sure if this is just inept reporting, but the teacher whose class is being featured, a Mr. Drouin, says at the outset: “The reason why I like it is because I get to talk to every single student,” he says. “One-on-one. Which never used to happen 10 years ago. There would be months going by, and I wouldn’t have a conversation with a student. So at least this way, I’m able to talk with every student a little bit at a time each day.” This is a colossal hint from Mr. Drouin to the reporter, Robbie Feinberg, that this is where he, Mr. Drouin, thinks most important part of the story can be found: that one-on-one he does with the students.

    So what gets reported? The first interaction Mr. Drouin has which the reporter describes is when Mr. Drouin goes over a girl’s notebook and tells her how far along her path she is as of that moment. “So you’re working on this. You did this last time. We still have to get to this,” he tells one student as he checks off her learning plan with a bright yellow highlighter.”

    The other interaction is that a student relates that he and another student frequently spend their time socializing instead of being on task. “I mean, I like when he comes over and just says, ‘Get to work,” says (a student,) “I will talk to (another student) all day, just about stupid stuff. And he’ll interrupt and get us to work.”

    Checking off completed tasks with a highlighter in student notebooks is not one-on-one. Redirection is not one-on-one. One-on-one is more like: The teacher looks over the student’s work and gives an analysis. The student tells the teacher what he/she wants to achieve in his/her work and may venture a reason as to why the goal is not being reached. Then the teacher suggests some ways to try get around the problem(s) so the student can reach his/her goal. The teacher gives encouragement. The student reseats him/herself and tries the teacher’s ideas. This is a simplified description, but it’s not “So you’re working on this. You did this last time. We (you) still have to get to this.” or “Get to work!”

    Like I said, perhaps there was more one-on-one going on the the reporter missed it. But I’m suspecting that this actually is what passes for one-on-one in this new system. Corroborative evidence is in the accompanying picture of Mr. Drouin standing over a student as the student presents his notebook and it’s labeled “Oak Hill High School teacher Chad Drouin meets with a student one-on-one during a social studies class.”

    And yes, the good teachers left when they found out that they were being reduced to monitors.

  6. Public humiliation and shaming of students is reprehensible. That's not teaching.

  7. Devil's advocacy is good for our process, this article addresses one view of Proficiency Based Learning. It's a messy process. The goals of PBL are to ensure that students are not pushed through school without mastering basic competencies. (If you are a parent who has a child in high school who, for example, still doesn't know there, their, they're and the multiplication facts, you understand the need for change.) However, this can quickly become "tracking," which the article does an excellent job highlighting. It's a pitfall of PBL, and overwhelmed teachers trying to implement it without proper support and planning time will fall into old patterns of high, middle and low. Guess what? The kids notice. From my high school daughter, "I'm in the dumb class with the dumb kids." Math always went too fast for her, and she's never caught up. So, in an ideal setting, PBL allows us the very important work of identifying specific lagging skills and build student's knowledge from their current understanding. This is for student's of all competencies, ensuring that noone is left behind or unchallenged. It's really, really hard work. It requires a supportive administration, team work, and master educators capable of creating a safe and vibrant learning environment. The caution from the article is vital, and part of the moral compass around which educational change should occur. It' asks, "what message are we sending the student's and their families?" Are we creating a leveled system that further frustrates and demoralizes learners? At it's best, we are honoring the work it takes every day for each child to make progress from their baseline of learning. We are a community that honors growth and multiple pathways to learning. We accept, recognize and highlight multiple strengths in our students. We teach and practice that no one person is meant to be "proficient" in everything. Student's learn at their own pace through rigorous instruction and work on their part. This is where it can go with the right mind set, but please know it's really hard work, much harder than writing a critical article about a snapshot of one person's viewpoint.

    1. Ah yes, basic competencies. Don't forget the all-important plural vs. possessive nouns, as in "students" vs. "student's".

  8. She sounds like the typical reporter, completely unaware of just how much she alters the classroom dynamic just by being there. If she didn’t like what she saw, it would be even worse without her presence. A quick visit also fails to paint the grind of a real school year – and just how mind-numbing a PBE approach will become as the year progresses. Check out that class in May or June if you want to see the complete deterioration of a fundamentally counterproductive methodology. Not my classroom!

  9. I like the idea of personalized learning. Unfortunately, I think it would require much smaller class sizes than we currently have in public schools. Right now I have 5 (5!) students at the non-profit I work for. I allow each student to choose their own books to read. I created a personal geography packet for a student who is basically illiterate. It's much easier to create more tailored instruction with smaller numbers, but I doubt our society will pay for that.

    1. Please keep in mind that this idea of personalized learning that you espouse bears absolutely no resemblance to the "personalized learning" (sic) that the reformsters mean when they talk about it. What the mean is kids being plugged into computers doing tasks at their own pace, while the teacher is just a behavior monitor. We all like the idea of personalized learning. But that's just the hook that's being used to reel us all in to "personalized learning" (sic) as presented in this article.

  10. NY Teacher: Looks like Robbie F. is a man, not a woman...not sure why you used the feminine pronoun.

  11. Dear Mr. Greene:

    Please make a note to yourself, that, if possible, you could re-visit Maine and this new system of PBL after enough time has gone by so the system could be assessed. We all want to see if this actually does what it hopes to do. I think its telling that the good teachers left, but, hey, I’m interested in success, as long as it is actual success and not someone massaging numbers. Thanks! Hope you can do this. I so enjoy your blog! I think you are making a difference.

  12. And to Rebecca: I do believe you missed "At it's best," (which is I think sentence #17) when you were discussing basic competencies. I assume you only bring up this "Grammar Police" stuff for the same reason I do. The writer,"Rob" uses the pronoun "we" in a way that suggests he is part of the PBL team, or thinks he is. I hope he's a parent, not a teacher.