Proficiency-Based Learning: Where Did it Come From? Part 1

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.

For several years — as I’ve written about a number of times — I’ve been captivated by the idea of understanding where this wholly new (to my eyes) system of scoring and reporting called Proficiency-Based Learning actually comes from.  I’d made some inroads in the past, but I’d always wanted to spend more time looking into it.  I had a feeling that doing so would give me some real answers about the best way forward.  I also wanted to detour into better understanding philosophies of grading.  So, now that I’ve had a few weeks to thaw out from this crazy school year, I’ve started going down the Proficiency-Based Learning (PBL) rabbit hole.  

Already, in just two rather frenzied days, I’ve learned so, so much.  I was joking to my wife that I’ve got a dissertation’s worth of information laid out ahead of me already.  That’s surely not far from the truth.

In this post, all I want to do is to outline the initial process I’ve been using.  

So — where did PBL come from?

It’s a mystery, a riddle, a quest to follow the clues backward in time.  A grading system that apparently came out of nowhere, an apparition, a modern invention, a distillation of a number of cutting edge ideas passed down to our humble hands from who-knows-what-height, a ground-breaking new system never before attempted by mere morals.   

So — how did we get PBL?

The answer, I realized, has a lot to do with a man named Thomas Guskey.

Since I first started doing heavy ed research three years ago, I’ve learned that often times just one or two learned, influential, persuasive thinkers or writers can really do a lot in promoting certain trends or theories in education: they get their ideas out, they influence others, and sometimes their ideas catch on very rapidly.

Plus, as I found a few years ago when I started poking around, just doing searches on “Proficiency-Based Learning” leads almost nowhere — that’s part of the problem; it’s such a new term.  Or it leads you to weird, fairly new groups that are clearly pushing products, groups like the Great Schools Partnership, or they lead you to somewhat related terms, like “Competency-Based” learning or “Personalized Learning,” which take you to some vaguely tech-oriented groups, like iNacol or even the Gates Foundation.  It was all very new . . .  and there’s no such thing as something brand-new in education.  I wanted to go deeper.  So this year, I realized, it was time to do two things:

1)  Start with someone really influential and see where that leads.

Who is Guskey?  I’ll spare you the biographical details — you can look those up.  Suffice to say that I’d heard his name a great deal (along with Rick Wormeli and Robert Marzano) during the past five years.  

2)  Try to get to the bottom of all the name changes in these systems: Proficiency Learning, Mastery Learning, Competency Learning, Standards-Based Grading, Outcomes-Based Education.

Fortunately, as I began with #1, #2 quickly followed right off the bat.  Guskey’s bio on his website gave a strong clue right off the bat:

“He began his career in education as a middle school teacher and earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago under the direction of Professor Benjamin S. Bloom.”

Bingo — there’s the connection.  Bloom and his books and articles, I’d already read and knew about.  The question to me had really been: how did we get from Bloom’s Mastery Learning (which seemed like it caught on in the 1970s, had a moment, then faded) to Outcome-Based Education (which seemed like it caught on in the 1990s, then was driven from schools by conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly, who were worried that fourth graders were being taught to be vegan homosexuals), to the Standards-Based era (which I didn’t really even understand), to the NCLB / test and punish era, to the Proficiency-Based Learning era (which we were definitely doing in New England, but no one else in the country seemed like they’d even heard about).

Now, seeing that one man — Guskey — had studied under Bloom in the 70s, but also been influential in whatever-it-was-that-led-to-PBL . . .  this was interesting.

Now, how to hone in on Guskey?

Here’s what I’ve done:  I started this process by pulling up Guskey’s CV.  What was he writing about, and when?  Sometimes, I’ve learned, you can really tell what the trends were just by looking at what was being published, when, and by whom.  I have learned this in my own time as an educator — a quick glance at The English Journal shows you what’s hot in the field.  And doing a study that specifically hones in on what one particular influential theorist was writing about can really get to the heart of the chronology.  Here’s another truth I am grasping:  when you’re looking at one writer’s output in these academic fields, you skip the books, which are often more accessible, popularized versions of the real research that was done years before, and instead you go right for the real thing — the peer-reviewed articles or the papers they’ve presented at national conferences.  That, I told myself, will tell the tale.

To be sure, there were other thinkers and writers who shaped the conversation about grading and assessment, and surely other works that shaped the PBL movement, too.  But no one has been a bigger player in assessment research than Guskey, and he’s been at it for forty years, and a lot of our efforts in Vermont have cited his influence.  

In the next post, I will outline what I discovered from this initial examination.