In the last post I did about the history of PBL, I traced its origins back to Benjamin Bloom’s Mastery Learning, which was innovated in the late 1960s and swept across many of the country’s largest school systems in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I noted that Mastery, which offered some promising but challenging ideas, was eventually dropped as official policy in most districts, the result of a combination of being poorly implemented as well as slightly out of step with the broader political movement.
However, there is another important movement that occurred at a similar time and whose destiny became entwined with that of Mastery, and vice-versa. That movement was called Minimum Competency Testing (MCT).
As I was finishing up my previous post about the history of Mastery Learning, I came across a fascinating opinion piece written by Rebecca Holcombe, Secretary of Education in Vermont at the time, in response to a 2017 op-ed by a teacher who questioned Proficiency Learning.
What’s striking about this piece is that it seems to reveal that even Holcombe, as capable and as in-touch an ed secretary as any state could have, has at best an incomplete understanding of where PBL came from and what research it’s actually based on. It’s an interesting document, so allow me to examine it in more depth.
For a long time, as I have written before, I have wondered how the various educational movements that pre-date the 2013 advent of Proficiency-Based Learning in my home state of Vermont fit together. As I’ve said in the past, the speed and stealth operation of education reform is truly a wonder. The more I study educational history, the more I’m in awe of how often big, sometimes-state- or country-wide changes in practice and policy occur (and then usually disappear . . . ); and rarely the proponents of such reforms seem to have any inkling of the past efforts from which new ideas have sprung, sometimes nearly unchanged.
The 2013 adoption by the state of Vermont of the Vermont Educational Quality Standards, which included a provision for Proficiency-Based Learning, was just such a trend.
This post is my third attempt to try to understand where that trend came from. The two previous posts under this heading were snapshots, but starting now, I’ll aim to more carefully fit the pieces together in order. This post is based on the research I have been doing this summer. It’s far from the full picture, and I make no claim to scholarly validity, but I consider this a working teacher’s first, iterative, good-faith attempt to get at the truth.
Sometimeswhat stands out to me the most these days when I watch Olympic whitewater slalom on TV is not the perfect, flawless runs that secure victory, but the flawed, imperfect runs — even the disasters — that lead to disappointment.
That happened three nights ago, during the men’s C-1 final as I watched a young Australian paddler named Dan Watkins. It happened again as I watched his countrywoman, Jessica Fox, fall short in her third bid for Olympic gold in the women’s kayak event.
One of the most interesting contrasts in grading philosophy is the question of whether grades are meant to identify talent or to develop it.
This is a simple, basic distinction that I have encountered over and over again in my research into the work of Thomas Guskey. It is also a profound distinction that I believe all teachers are advised to consider.
I believe that when you arrive at a certain point in life, perhaps even a certain “midway” point, it’s important to understand what you’re against, but it’s also high time to start fleshing out just what it is that you are for. To me, that’s a mark of maturity: knowing who you are, what you’re all about, who exactly you really align with, and how it is that you view the world.
A thinker like John Dewey of course, an evolutionary Pragmatist, would surely respond that who we are is always changing. That’s true. But I think it’s also true that every now and then you read something that strikes a deep chord with you, something that’s bone deep inside you, something that vibrates to a particular tuning fork. I’m talking about in your work, in your personal life, in politics, and above all, in philosophy.
Here’s something I just learned: so far, I really, really identify with the political worldview embodied in The Federalist Papers.
Alright, I had to take a pause briefly from my research into Thomas Guskey to write about this absolutely fascinating article I just found that really explains to me so much about where Proficiency-Based Learning (PBL) came from.
The article is a 1992 interview with William Spady, the founder of Outcome-Based Education (OBE), an educational philosophy I’d always known was some kind of direct predecessor to PBL, but which seemed to have been wiped clean from the American ed scene since sometime when I was still in elementary school.
This article is truly a fascinating look into where PBL came from. In it, Spady really explains OBE, analyzes how it’s different than Mastery Learning (ML) and is put to some tough questions that inadvertently show you why OBE is going to be doomed in and forgotten in just a few years . . . only to return many years later in the Northeast, as OBE-lite, under the name of Proficiency-Based Education.
So there it is: PBL is just OBE-lite. And almost no one knows what that movement even was.
I think every educator should “go down the rabbit hole” each summer. This is a practice I started at the National Writing Project’s summer institute, where it’s more properly known as “undertaking a research project about some aspect of your practice.” I prefer the rabbit hole metaphor, or perhaps, as sportswriter Bill Simmons would say, “going into ‘binge mode.’”
I pick a topic relating to this wonderful, varied profession of ours, some trend, fad, current issue, some school or approach and delve into the research. More specifically, I like to understand where it came from, to pore over the evidence, to put the puzzle pieces together until I can trace the timeline that helps me understand how that idea ended up in my classroom. Education is an interesting mix of the immediate, the live, the day-to-day — but also of the intellectual, the political, the ideas and the debates. It’s cyclical but also evolving. Schools and teachers roll through trend after trend, often with little or no justification from the higher-ups, no understanding of much of where it’s all coming from. I like to go back and figure it all out. There’s nothing more interesting than realizing that some hot new trend is actually coming out of some prior movement that the older folks would like you to forget ever existed. I like to go back to the source, to read the important works, to scour the academic journals, see the reports in newspapers, study the books by the authors who were there when all of this was first booting up. That, as I’ve said before, is the path to freedom. To know your history is to be liberated.
That’s what going down the rabbit hole is all about: liberation.
Any time Jonathan Rauch has a new book, I preorder it.
Why? First let’s start with the fact that the man is, quite simply, a genius. He is a unique synthesis: a heterodox thinker who challenges convention, a classical liberal grounded in tradition, just enough of an academic to be meaningful, and just enough of a professional journalist to be clarifying. Forged in the fires of the Gay Rights Movement, of which he has been an integral part since the 1980s, Rauch is an astute critic of both the Status Quo and of the Resistance. He is a tireless advocate of identity politics *and* the most articulate defender of unfettered free speech this side of John Stuart Mill.
I have written before about his monumental and towering 1993 book, Kindly Inquisitors, possibly the most illuminating analysis I have ever read about contemporary liberal society, and surely the best argument for free speech and debate written since the mid-19th century. When I heard that Rauch was revisiting these topics in a new, more expansive work due out this summer, I pre-ordered the book and spent the next four months devouring any articles or podcasts the man did to promote it. In particular, Rauch’s conversation and debate with fellow gay rights luminary and free speech defender Andrew Sullivan — the rare time when someone has gotten the better of Sullivan on his own turf, I’d say — got me particularly excited. Last week, I finally received my copy of The Constitution of Knowledge.
Over the past week or so since school let out, I’ve been undertaking a short research project to try to understand the different approaches that various Vermont high schools have been taking toward Proficiency Based Learning (PBL). Too often over the past five years, I have felt a nagging sense that my coworkers and I were going it alone, left to our own devices to practically invent a brand-new system of teaching from the ground up, isolated from our counterparts in other schools down the road, toiling away in their own classrooms, all of us making the same mistakes, reinventing the wheel, unable to learn from each other’s missteps.
Now that the dust has settled from the pandemic year and from the first (and now second!) senior classes to graduate under PBL, I wanted to pause to examine what everyone else has come up with for PBL systems — my coworkers and counterparts up and down the Green Mountain state: surely there is something I could learn from their ingenuity and improvisation.
I’m not quite finished yet — so far I’ve researched about 35 of the 50 or so high schools in Vermont — and I’m not exactly calling principals to inquire about the inside dirt; I’m just going on the materials that districts make publicly available. But there’s quite a bit online, much of it reasonably up to date, and with some digging and close reading, I think I’ve managed to surmise what most Vermont secondary programs have put in place. I’ve studied up on their graduation requirements, their PBL initiatives, their transferable skills, their grading scales, and anything else relevant to this strange and interesting new system we’re all designing in our own way.
It’s a little like one of those TV shows where they give cooks ten minutes to put together original creations using wacky, unorthodox ingredients. Time to take a stroll and see how the others have made it work.