Origins of Proficiency-Based Learning, Part 4: Did Rebecca Holcombe understand PBL?

Former Ed Secretary Rebecca Holcombe to Run for Governor of Vermont | Off  Message

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. 

Early in the essay, Holcombe makes an interesting claim.  The writer of the original piece, she complains, “seems to misunderstand the logic and research related to proficiency approaches to instruction.” 

Just to drive the point home, she writes, “Any discussion of proficiency-based approaches needs to consider the research that led the Board to adopt and the legislature to endorse this approach four years ago” (emphasis mine).  

Note that: if you want to discuss PBL, you’ve got to understand the research that led the state board of ed to enact PBL.  This is a curious claim given that PBL was never presented as having its own body of research.  No one had ever “done” PBL.

So what is this “research”?  Holcombe begins with three “basic principles” that she says PBL is based on: clarity of objectives, more practice for students, and quality feedback.  

If those three principles sound pretty bread-and-butter — like they don’t necessarily require authorizing a whole new revolutionary grading system, you would be . . .  correct.  Holcombe concedes: “Of course, some teachers have always focused on these principles, even in so-called ‘traditional’ grading environments.” Okay — so why PBL?

Then Holcombe makes an even more interesting concession.  Recall how she wrote that “any discussion of proficiency-based approaches needs to consider the research that led the Board to adopt and the legislature to endorse this approach four years ago”?  Well, turns out she is not so sure herself:

“I was not in office for the development of the Education Quality Standards, but I suspect the intent was to encourage more teachers to focus on mastery, rather than simply moving students on to the next topic, whether they learned the material or not” (emphasis mine). 

So — and I really want to emphasize this — even Rebecca Holcombe, one of the best secretaries of ed in the entire country, who has been in office at this point for four years — including the critical first years of PBL roll-out — is not really sure why Vermont adopted PBL in the first place.

What is the research that she then turns to as a justification for PBL?  Surprise, surprise — it’s Mastery Learning.  She feels the two movements are so close that she appears to rue that they have different names at all: “I don’t love the jargon of education, because sometimes it confuses as much as it informs.”

She continues:

“Proficiency-based approaches are well developed and supported by research that dates back to the 70’s. Benjamin Bloom piloted and evaluated “mastery-based” approaches that involved breaking learning into clear and defined units of learning, and assessing students just after they taught, to verify what they learned.”

Holcombe also cites Thomas Guskey’s 2010 article, “Lessons of Mastery Learning” to explain what Vermont is up to.

After the section on Mastery is over, it’s back to PBL talking points for a few paragraphs, before Holcombe ends the piece, ironically, by calling on Vermont to “stay the course” — even as she is responding to a teacher who just wanted to “stay the course” in the first place, rather than being forced to do PBL:

“One of the biggest risks we face as a state is the belief that every challenge requires a change in policy. If we change the game for teachers every few years, they are compelled to spend all their time on changing direction, and never are able or allowed to spend time getting good at doing what they care about most: teaching well.”

That’s certainly a dubious final line.  Clearly many teachers in Vermont, including the initial op-ed writer, want to be allowed to return to “doing what they care most about” — teaching well under a more traditional system that they know works.

I do not want to read too much into this letter.  It is just one communication, and I cannot pretend to have made a careful or even elementary investigation into what any Vermont ed secretary wrote or said about PBL.  But it is quite striking as a singular example, particularly given that it was written by the highest ed official in the state, after a long period in power during the initial thrust of PBL.  

To imagine that even Rebecca Holcombe had little understanding of where PBL came from is strangely reassuring.  If she wasn’t clear, how could I, a lowly teacher, be expected to be?

Several other conclusions:

On the one hand, I resent the fact that we were not and are not allowed to equate PBL and Mastery Learning as Holcombe did, because it meant that we were not able to learn from the mistakes of the past and to have honest conversations about the successes and problems of Mastery Learning.

On the other hand, I am starting to realize something about trends and movements in education.  As I have written before, often promising ideas are killed off by unfair political characterizations or poor implementation.  Mastery Learning was one of these initiatives; recall that even by 1980 educators who favored its approaches felt they had to purposely change the name of the movement because the term “Mastery Learning” had already been so sullied.  Perhaps name-changes are not deceptive, but subversive — ways of reintroducing good ideas back into schools to be better implemented, without setting off the political firestorms of calling them by their original terms.

I also think it’s true that movements blend with other movements, to the point where they need — or pick up — new names to describe them.  Witness all of the endless versions of objective-based or outcome-based education.  Seen in this light, PBL really is something substantively different than Mastery Learning — it’s really a blend of Outcome-Based Education and Mastery — and therefore deserves a different name.

I think this is fine.  But at the same time I think there are other, subtler, more harmful causes (and effects) of the slipperiness surrounding name changes of movements.  

For example, marketing.  Organizations and individuals particularly those selling products to schools, have a vested interest in marketing their products as both original and as new and unseen before.  It’s one thing to say that a new program is something totally new and different, but it’s “based on current research” (like Thomas Guskey’s) — but it’s another thing entirely to claim a new program is basically just recycled Benjamin Bloom from 1968.  The former adds credibility to a hot new product; the latter just sounds like something that was tried and failed.  Marketing will always push for a certain amnesia toward the past.

Another example is just the general hopefulness of everyone involved in education — which is, in the end, a kind of shutting of one’s eyes and ears toward history.  It is the belief that there are new, untried methods out there that will allow us to accomplish miracles with children.  The need for this belief is expressed as just a pure hopefulness among front-line teachers:  “Maybe this cool new strategy / technology can finally help me reach all of my students?” — there is always an element of this even in the most hardened of teachers.  The writer Garret Keizer wrote that he believed this was the case — that teachers are often gullible — because in a sense they have “fallen” for the even greater lie, that all children can learn anything.

This “optimism” for new solutions takes a more insidious form among higher-ups and politicians — those who want magic accomplished, but do not want to pay for it.

Either way, I think this kind of optimism is the kind that actively wants to tell itself that PBL is not really Mastery — Mastery was something that was done a long time ago; this is new, this is different.  This won’t be consigned to the dustbin of educational history.  We’re not modestly updating something that had mixed success a long time ago — we’re trying something new that’s definitely going to work (or, in the eyes of the cynical, is definitely not going to work).  The general belief, too, is that our era is so different than the past — that surely now this idea will work with students.

Still, I don’t like any of this.  I’m not in favor of any of these Platonic noble lies being offered to teachers or to the public.  Let’s actually be skeptical of any new trends coming up.  Let’s not dismiss them unfairly — again, good ideas need to come back into circulation, and Mastery was a good idea at its core — but let’s have an honest conversation about where the new ideas come from, how they did or did not succeed in the past (which, despite changes in technology, was never really that different than now), and how we can improve.

Because that’s the only way we realistically can learn from the past and have any hope that our efforts will last.