Putting Off PBL

It doesn’t seem as though there’s a lot of talk online about the VTDigger news story that came out this week:  The Vermont NEA is calling to delay the Proficiency Based Learning (PBL) graduation requirement, which is set to go live for next year’s seniors. My sense from talking to colleagues is that many of us expected something like this to happen, perhaps even sooner than it did. I’ve been surprised by the relative lack of vocal opposition to PBL here in Vermont. But then this is the moment — as the first PBL graduating class closes in on their final year — when PBL’s requirements start to seem very, very real.

Then again, it’s hard to know how seriously to take this delay proposal. Right now, it’s just the NEA saying this.  It’s not Montpelier. And even the NEA doesn’t sound like they’ve got their minds made up.  Maybe the talk of a delay will all blow over? Then again, I remember a few years ago the Maine NEA came out against PBL, and it wasn’t long afterward that the mandate was strongly scrutinized, then dropped entirely. The NEA proposal is surely a harbinger.

But Vermont is unique. Let me step back and say I’m proud to teach in Vermont.  You start talking to teachers in other states — or even following the news — and it starts to dawn on you how good we’ve got it here. Watching the tumultuous year we’ve had in education — the teacher strikes, funding wars, the fights over whether to arm teachers — I’ve often thought, “That’ll never happen in Vermont.” Often it’s true.

Think about it: We had a Republican governor change our gun laws because of a school shooting that didn’t even happen.  Where else do you get that?

This is not to say we don’t have our problems.  Those are well documented. But we are more sensible than most. We never bought in hard into the punitive ed reforms of the last twenty years: test, punish, repeat.  We don’t just say we value schools, we actually open our wallets. Our schools are some of the best funded in the country. Our classes are small and our student-teacher ratios are low. And unlike every other state in the union, we actually know our American history.

Once again, I am not suggesting Vermont’s schools are perfect. I’ve written many, many words to the contrary. But I think it’s easy to forget, as we dwell on the problems of declining demographics, how unique we are.

I think the main thing that makes Vermont’s schools so different from other states where I’ve worked is our progressive values.  We like to see ourselves on the cutting edge.  PBL, although it descends from old ideas, is still a radical departure from today’s educational mainstream, scrapping age-old pedagogical mainstays like the Carnegie Unit and the alpha grading scale.  PBL as Vermont envisions it is progressive and student-centered. Taken alongside the rest of Act 77 — Flexible Pathways, Personalized Learning — it is innovative and bold.

Or is it untested and unproven?  

That’s the dilemma. Because the problem with being an innovator is that sometimes what you’re attempting isn’t research-based simply because it hasn’t been tried before.  I see that tension now in Vermont. We want to innovate but we don’t want to harm. PBL advocates have never been able to point teachers toward any clear, reassuring models of PBL done at scale. We’re told to pattern our work on embryonic charter schools, or lone districts in Alaska. I always thought it was interesting that PBL advocates never talk about the mastery learning movement in the 1960s and 70s, the minimum competency movement in the 1970s and 80s, or the outcome-based education movement in the 1990s. You rarely hear competency or proficiency backers mention William Spady or even Benjamin Bloom. If anything, the pivot to different names for the movement (how interesting that two states sharing a border — New Hampshire and Vermont — call the same reform by two different names) is really a pivot to better branding. It’s as though advocates, wary of getting bogged down in the very real debates about efficacy and values that happened in schools during previous incarnations of PBL, wish to shroud these earlier efforts from teachers and voters. As a teacher, that’s part of what has been maddening under this mandate: we’ve spent six years being told we should show kids models of what we want, and clarity of objectives — yet we aren’t given a single convincing model ourselves of what PBL should look like, or any kind of historical clarity about the origins and evolution of the movement we’ve adopted.

Here in Vermont, are we innovating — or flying blind?  I guess it depends on who you ask.

So into that context is dropped this slightly awkward news article. Now the Vermont NEA is asking for a delay to the PBL requirement.  As I said, I’m not surprised. Maine delayed their PBL graduation requirement, too (before getting rid of it last year).

Should Vermont do the same and delay?

Here’s my answer:  Don’t.

First of all, a delay kills our credibility with students and families.  Right now I’d argue that we’re at the make-or-break moment. Our first PBL-graduating class is now second-semester juniors.  As the reluctant guinea pigs for five years, they’re not only conscious they’re being experimented on, they’ve passed through the stages of PBL-related grief, and now as a few colleagues and I have joked, they’ve finally arrived at acceptance. This has only happened because they’ve finally realized that we’re not joking — they’re actually going to have to meet all of these different proficiencies if they want to walk across the graduation stage next year.  If lawmakers pull the plug now, right as students have finally resigned / committed themselves to the new system, we’ll undercut years of work getting them to buy in. Not to mention we’ll ruin educators’ credibility with subsequent graduation classes. Future students may think, “If they delayed it once, they’ll delay it again.” Children are often very good observers of adult behavior, after all.

A delay will also undercut teacher support.  By now we’ve spent years of our lives learning complex, even experimental new methods of instruction, curriculum design, and assessment.  We’ve chained ourselves to the computer night after night, doing reams and reams of additional PBL data entry, all while fielding a slew of new questions from parents about the new system. Most importantly, we’ve been the ones standing in front of a crowd of resistant teenagers and selling a system we’ve often struggled to understand ourselves. If lawmakers show us they don’t have the will to finish what they’ve started, they’ll lose credibility with us for the next statewide reform. Why invest next time if Montpelier’s just going to renege?

Lastly, a delay accomplishes nothing.  We’ve already had five years; what’s another going to accomplish? A delay three years ago might have helped us tighten and clarify, but by now the main questions we must answer all require the final “summative assessment” of a PBL-determined graduation: Is the bar set in the right place? Does our new system articulate the proficiencies that teachers and parents actually value? Are all schools graduating students on equal standards?  The pressure of high school graduation has a way of clarifying important questions. And we need the answers. A delay gives us none.

I understand that people are worried about what’ll happen when you try to graduate students under PBL.  I think the main worry is that we just don’t know what’ll happen. Sometimes PBL reminds me of screenwriting legend William Goldman’s famous quip about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.” Partly because we’ve tried to cover up the past experiments in mastery and outcome-based learning, we’re not sure how this is going to turn out. It’s uncharted territory.

But that’s what Act 77 asked for. The price you pay for being innovative is that you have to be comfortable with taking risks.  We venerate men like Steve Jobs while forgetting that he failed repeatedly. The old system is familiar and safe, and most educators rightly sense a lot of uncomfortable problems we’ll have to face next year. But isn’t it better to face them sooner rather than later?  

Because too often with bold reforms, facing your problems later can quickly turn into never facing them at all.

(Update: I had just published this post before seeing this new story. Apparently the AOE is now opening the door to a delay now too.)