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.
Put it this way: It was fascinating.
I’ll of course write more about this at length once I am done, but in the meantime I wanted to share a few initial observations.
The first thing that stands out is that there is a wide variety in how seriously schools seem to take PBL, based on the resources publicly available for parents and families.
While some schools prominently featured PBL requirements and procedures in their programs of study and school profiles, others, including several large Vermont public schools, made little reference whatsoever. In some of these schools, there was a palpable enthusiasm for the project, while in others there seemed to be a very clear note of state-issued coercion being sounded (“Per Act 77, all Vermont schools must . . . ”).
Not surprisingly, there is wide variety of approaches to PBL, which I began ranking by their commitment to the reform. I found four basic levels.
Level 1: Traditional Approaches
Unsurprisingly, Vermont’s private and semi-private schools barely seem to have heard of PBL. Most still employ a traditional 0-100 / alpha grading system. Some are quite frank that they are fostering a “competitive” college preparatory environment, one in which, presumably, the primary function of grades is to rank students — an idea considered antithetical to many of the tenets of PBL, all of which downplay competition in favor of growth, individualized pace, and authentic learning. It is interesting how often the most pedagogically conservative schools are the ones that people will pay the most money to go to.
Level 2: Reporting Standards, but Tracking Credits
Despite the PBL revolution, most schools in Vermont still operate on the Carnegie system. That was a real surprise to me. What I found was that although most Vermont schools report standards, they don’t actually track them. They do track credits. A student’s proficiency on, say, research writing will be dutifully reported (sometimes just within the grading software, but very often also on the report card), but it’s only after he achieves the set number of credits that he can graduate. Standards are “nice to know,” but credits are “need to know.”
In other words, standards matter only with the confines of a course. Mess up on your standards and you’ll fail and you won’t get the credit. But make it through the standards in the course and you’ll pass, which is all that matters. As to how many standards you can actually miss and still pass, most schools are suitably vague. For example:
“At Colchester High School . . . each department has delineated two to eight discipline specific proficiencies that a student is required to meet for graduation. When a student receives credit for a particular course that is an indication that the proficiencies have been met.”
Presumably there is some wiggle room to do well on some standards but not on others and still pass. And presumably there is no expectation that you will be held to those missed standards next year.
Level 3: Tracking Credits and Tracking Standards
A few schools appear to track both: you must “pass” the class, but you must also demonstrate proficiency on all of the course standards. What happens if you don’t quite make both? Some schools appear to have explicit policies for addressing discrepancies. One school, for instance, appears to require students to both pass the course, and to be proficient in all course standards. But should a student achieve one but not the other, that student is entitled to a “credit appeal” — presumably a review of whether he should receive the all important credit based on how close or far off he was. Other schools describe various different options (retaking the class, summer school, etc.).
Either way, I see these schools as more committed to PBL because they’re actually tracking standards.
Level 4: No Credits, Tracking Standards Only
From what I’ve found so far, only a few schools are truly standards- or proficiency-based. These schools have thrown out credit requirements altogether. Only one of these four schools employs a traditional 0-100 / alpha system for course grades. The other three calculate standards and course grades on a 1-4 scale. One of these schools does not even calculate GPA at all!
In the other systems, to some extent, a student might be able to graduate without being proficient in every single standard. Here, in these few brave schools, this is not the case: students are held to graduation account for each and every standard.
Beyond that, a few more initial findings:
Nearly All Schools Separate Subject Proficiencies and Work Habits
Except for the private schools, pretty much every school I researched is teasing out work habits from academic proficiencies. Some schools factor work habits into course grades, while others report them separately for each course. Still others report work habits within cross-subject transferable skills.
Nearly All Schools Report Transferable Skills
Almost all schools do this in some shape or form. Some schools report these separately from work habits, while others combine them. Some schools embed these transferable skills into courses themselves, while others require students to demonstrate proficiency in them separately, sometimes via student-led presentations.
Most Schools Have Moved to a 1-4 Grading Scale
At least for their proficiencies and transferable skills. Some schools use this scale for their course grades, too, while others use a 0-100 or alpha grading scale for course grades. Several schools use 1-5 scales, as well. Many schools pair the 1-4 grading scale with abbreviations (for example, P for Proficient).
Rethinking Priorities and Practices
It was pretty obvious that PBL has clearly inspired Vermont schools to rethink not only their traditional assessment practices, but the purpose of grades themselves. In my research, I saw a number of schools whose publicly-available materials included not just how-to-understand-PBL instructions, but thoughtful statements about the district’s philosophy regarding the purposes and uses of evaluation and reporting. Although I did see some boilerplate-type materials (one ten-point list of PBL goals from the Great Schools Partnership showed up a few times), overall most districts really did seem to have thought these concepts through for themselves.
Transferable skills are another example. Clearly PBL’s mandate toward transferable skills made schools think hard about the skills and dispositions they wanted to see in graduates, and — more importantly — to think about how to evaluate whether students were meeting specific criteria to demonstrate these skills.
There are a Wide Variety of Flexible Pathways at Most Schools
Beyond PBL requirements, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the variety and richness of alternative programs offered to high school students in most Vermont districts: wonderful, diverse technical education options, work-based learning programs, internships, even alternative, project-based programs providing individually tailored educational experiences — in addition to many rich dual-enrollment or early college programs. I do not think that this has much to do with PBL, but I do think districts are taking Act 77’s Flexible Pathways mandate seriously.
Many Schools Require Community Service
I was surprised by this — more than a few schools specifically require outside-of-class community service in order to graduate. Some schools require up to 40 hours. That is significant, and I had no idea that this was the case.
One thing that stood out to me was the difference between the complexity of the publicly available materials from the schools that take PBL seriously compared to the relative simplicity of, for example, the private schools that do not undertake PBL at all. You could just see some of the PBL-heavy schools tying themselves in knots trying to explain the new systems of scoring and reporting: dense terminology, pyramidal diagrams, circuitous explanations about what are usually simple matters (how to read your child’s report card). I found a good deal of it hard to understand myself.
With a system requiring as much reporting as PBL, having the right software seems critical. A program that can provide a simple display of a student’s progress in standards and on daily work seems easy to find, but in reality is not. I saw quite a bit on school sites about how to use the specific grading software to check a child’s progress. I think one PBL component I’ll begin looking at soon is what software each district uses.
It has always seemed ironic to me that a grading system built on clarity and conscious design principles was constructed with so little guidance and so little understanding of what we were going for. It’s not surprising, therefore, to look around now that the dust has settled to find so many Vermont schools pursuing so many different approaches.
I think that this “diversity” of methods is positive — as long as schools talk to each other and learn from each other’s mistakes. Unfortunately, I don’t know that this is happening. Perhaps it is the case that district administrators or building principals are talking, but I don’t think Vermont teachers are talking with each other — at least not in a way that would ever lead to real changes. I offer this short write-up and any further ones in that spirit — of beginning the conversation.
Two final points occur to me.
The first is that, because I work at one of the schools at Level 4, it surprises me to see how modest many of the adoptions by even the largest, best funded, and well-staffed high schools has been. Pushing content area proficiencies solely into courses — rather than tracking these proficiencies themselves — can be seen as a fairly limited structural change, a way of paying lip service to a passing trend.
On the other hand, perhaps it’s a savvy move — a way of a bowing to the realities of what most taxpayers expect from schools (ranking, GPAs), while all the while reforming the nuts-and-bolts daily processes of teaching and learning on the ground.
Which is it? It makes me curious.
The last thing that strikes me is the question I think we should all be wondering: To what extent is this all making a difference? Does PBL work better than a traditional scoring and reporting system? Do students learn better as a result of the mounds of money and heaps of time we’ve been doling out for the last seven years? What do teachers, students, and parents think? Is it better? How should we improve it?
Once again, I offer this piece as a conversation starter. I’ll plan to publish more about my findings soon as well.