Becoming Proficient at Proficiency Learning

Fellow Educators,

I have some concerns about proficiency based learning (PBL).

The first is the abbreviation.  “PBL” apparently stands for BOTH of our hot new initiatives:  proficiency based learning AND project based learning.  What gives?

Language aside, here’s the thing: Even though it’s been a herculean effort, we educators kind of like PBL.  It may be incredibly different than what we’ve known, but we like the way it teases out skills and knowledge from soft “transferable” skills — because that helps us design better lessons.  We respect the way PBL forces us to articulate exactly what it is we want students to know and to do.  We like how the bar is higher. We like how it’s not tied to standardized tests.  In a lot of ways, PBL forces us to be better teachers.  PBL feels — for lack of a better work — progressive.

You can see how much teachers like PBL up in Maine, now that PBL is under attack from the public there.  Even as parents, students, and legislators fret over unconventional transcripts, many superintendents and classroom teachers alike are rallying to PBL’s defense.  It’s not just that they’re bemoaning years of time and money down the drain should Maine pull the plug. It’s that they think PBL’s promising. And it is, especially compared with toxic educational trends of the last 17 years — the standardized testing sucking kids’ souls, the shady charter schools siphoning away students, the Michelle Rhee-style hiring and firing based on whimsical “value added” metrics.  Compared to pure evil, PBL looks like something worth fighting for, even if it is largely untested.

But I’m a little worried.  The public tires quickly of educational reforms.  PBL is already on the ropes in Maine, and I’m worried that Vermont’s sure to follow.  From my view, there are a couple of main problems with PBL. We educators need to fix these issues soon — otherwise we’ll end up tossing all the work we’ve done in just a few short years.

Here are a few of the concerns I have.

Raising the Bar

Every educational movement claims to “raise the bar.” But the placement of the bar is a complex negotiation between professional educators and the community in which they teach.  Under PBL we’re planning to raise the bar from a 60% (a passing grade currently) to an 85% (the equivalent of a 3 — a graduation-required grade) now.  We are raising the bar for graduation by 25 points?  

We’ll either be keeping a lot of kids from graduating, or lowering our standards to avoid this.  I think you know how that one ends.


PBL promises us that “learning is the constant, and time is the variable.” The problem comes when schools, in a rush to move beyond mere “seat time,” start de-emphasizing attendance policies even more than they do now.  Right now, attendance is a HUGE problem.  We have kids missing 40% of classes and expecting to graduate.  If it’s this bad under a “time-based system,” I’m worried at how bad it could get under a proficiency-based one.  Let’s not lose track of the basics.

I’m also worried that while we should be crafting a system in which all children get the time they need to learn, instead we’re creating a system in which students , in a rush to complete their many, disparate requirements, see proficiency-based learning as a box-checking activity, to be completed as quickly as possible — without spending enough time to truly master the material.  And I’m worried teachers will be pressured to check them off before they’re ready.

Never mind the concern lurking in the back of all of our minds about PBL:  What happens when smart kids start finishing high school in three years instead of four?  Or in two years?

If we start insisting on proficiency to graduate, and proficiency is fairly low, won’t masses of kids simply rise only to that low bar?  Can a student at 16, with only two years of high school, truly be prepared for college?  Or for the world?

Too Much Data

Here’s another problem: proficiency grading promises more data about how a student is doing.  But more data is not always better.

The old report cards were simple: one grade per course.  The problem, reform advocates complained, is that an A or a C told us little about a student.  Proficiency grading parses that A in English into 12 categories: six content standards and six “transferable skills” (work habits).  That jams a lot of scores onto a report card.  How are parents and students supposed to understand?  Though I’m a teacher, I barely do.

Not Enough Data

And yet, even with so many categories, the new proficiency report cards don’t have enough data.  At least, not the kind that’s useful.

The question parents most often ask is, “How’s my kid doing?”

But a proficiency report card does not sound the alarm though like the old report cards did.  There’s often no easy way to mark “missing” in a proficiency gradebook, no easy way to waive the red flag.

The old system was good at this.  Perhaps we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater?

Teaching Work Habits

Under the old system, the threat of a zero on a missing homework assignment theoretically motivated you to do your homework.  But under PBL, the only place you’ll lose credit for missing homework is in the transferable skills.  But transferable skills don’t count toward your GPA, so . . .  why do your homework?

PBL responds:

“If you don’t do your homework, you won’t do well on tests and you won’t be marked proficient.  So kids will be motivated to do their homework” . . .

. . .  said no one who’s worked with kids, ever.

Kids Want Rankings

But kids’ elementary school report cards look just like PBL ones.  So what’s wrong here?

High school kids — the ones who want to excel — want to be ranked.  They know the stakes.  They’re up against more competition for fewer acceptance slots and fewer scholarship dollars.  You’ve got to stand out.

But under the 1-4 PBL system, you can’t.  Under the old system, a 92 (an A-) was a lot different than an 85 (a B).  But under PBL, they’ll both likely fall under a “3.” This is especially a problem because it’s not always clear to students how to achieve a 4.  In fact, on many assignments, it’s not even possible.  So that means the great mass of students pretty much live at either a 2 or a 3.  Look around an average high school.  Does that seem right to you?

I hear this complaint from students all the time.  Sounds like we’re not alone.

Rating Fever

We’ve gotten drunk on PBL.  We think we can break everything down into a sub-skill and rate a kid on it.  Where the old system mushed everything together, we’ve gotten carried away pulling it all apart and taming it into a million separate categories.

First, it’s not practical to rate kids on absolutely everything.  I think we’re finding that.  (Can anyone say, “crazy data entry”?)

Second, we risk turning education into a box checking activity for ourselves as well.  Instead of designing rich, integrated lessons that call on students to spontaneously create meaning, we’ve got to have it planned out ahead of time.  But the best teachers know learning doesn’t always happen that way.  You have to be awake to what the particular learners before you need.  You can’t just be checking boxes.

The Future?

While it’s tempting to think that proficiency-based learning is just another educational initiative bound for an all-too-predictable five- or six-year flight before falling back to earth, there is much to proficiency education that is tremendously promising — if it only has a chance to succeed.

If nothing else, proficiency education forces teachers to be more precise about what they want from students.  Even the proliferation of grading categories — befuddling to non-educators — is inspired by the noble goal of more carefully watching who’s mastering the material and who’s not.  The old system rewarded the kid who waited out his four years; the new system seeks to reward him only if he can read, write, and calculate. And on top of it all, states like Vermont have been confident enough to allow each school to work out graduation standards for themselves.

That said, if we don’t honestly own up to many of these issues, then and all the time, money, and training that has been poured into proficiency education will have been wasted if the reform doesn’t stick.  And if there’s one thing we know about educational reforms, it’s harder than we think to make them stick.  

After all, it may take some time before the “proficient student” replaces the “A student” in our national consciousness.

If it ever does.