Screaming in Public

(Author’s Note: I wrote this last May but haven’t gotten around to putting it up until now.)

It’s the Spring of 2021 and more than a year into this whole mess, the pandemic is finally starting to come to an end.  I am fully vaccinated and my wife will be two weeks from her last shot in another week and last night I went to pick up takeout from a restaurant in town and every table was filled with unmasked diners grinning and laughing and leaning in close and drinking and everything looking a heck of a lot like normal.  I just hope when this is all over we’re still allowed to keep ordering takeout alcohol.  What would be the problem there? There’s nothing like walking back to your car on Main Street with two massive blue margaritas.

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Proficiency-Based Learning in Vermont, Part 2: The Benefits and the Drawbacks

In my last post, I looked at Proficiency-Based Learning in Vermont — focusing especially on my surprise that it has lasted so long, and examining reasons why.  

I also talked about several of the surprising things that stood out to me during the implementation.

Today I want to go a little deeper by looking at the pros and cons of PBL itself.  I realize that with something as vast, nebulous, de-centered, and hazy about its origins as PBL, it’s hard to comment with any real certainty about what it really is.  It’s not quite as bad as “Personalized Learning” — whatever that is — but it’s still, as I mentioned in the last post, a little like the blind man and the elephant.  

That said, I actually think you can get to the heart of what PBL really is, especially if you’ve used it for a few years like I have.  It’s taken me a while to get this far, but I think I’ve started to understand what’s really going on with PBL — both the good and the bad.

Let’s start with PBL’s main selling point, the heart of what it’s all about.

The Paradox of Clarity

PBL is focused on clarity.  Its main tenet is that greater clarity improves learning.  It promises sharper learning targets, distinctions between work habits and subject proficiency, more actionable feedback, and more specific data.

But here’s the paradox:  Clarity requires both specificity and simplicity.  It’s like good writing: as an English teacher, I teach my students they need to use specific details but also simple, effective organization and clear, jargon-free language.  In fact, this balance is one of the perennial challenges of teaching itself: you must be specific with your expectations, feedback, and goals, but you must also be simple and targeted, too, so that you don’t lose or overwhelm students: Comprehensive, but also streamlined.

PBL embodies this paradox of clarity — both the potential benefits and the pitfalls. 

First, the benefits.

Clarity of Goals

For starters, PBL’s push for teachers to more clearly define their goals has been positive for everyone involved, for all the reasons that greater clarity of objectives is always valuable.  I think it’s safe to say that an entire generation of teachers has a much clearer understanding of what’s important subject knowledge in their discipline, and where the “bar” should be for high school graduation.  PBL has asked some fundamental questions of teachers, and I think it has helped us come to greater clarity.

For example, here’s an awkward question we faced early on:  If we set the bar at a place that can be reached by a majority of our students by 12th grade, aren’t there a number of students who can reach that bar two or even three years prior?  If a student can demonstrate proficiency by the end of 9th grade, why is that student expected to stay around and finish three more years of high school classes?  (We had to find a good answer!)  Or, if you suggest that the bar should be raised . . .  then you’re back to the classic “bar raising” challenges of any ambitious reform (for example, what happens when 20% of your seniors won’t be graduating in June?).  Either way, having to clearly delineate what a graduation “proficient” skill level truly is, with so little room to muddy or to hide our answer, was deeply instructive for us as teachers.

Clarity of Assessment

I also think that the use of fewer gradations in our grading scales — 1 to 4, rather than 0 to 100, for example — has also helped teachers flesh out clear differences of levels of proficiency within their disciplines.  I often find myself telling students, “Here’s what a 3 is — and here’s what a 2 is” in a really clear way that I was never able to do between an A and a B.  Yes, there’s a far bigger range within each step on the scale (a 2 encapsulates a whole range of 70s and 80s under the old system) but the fewer categories allow teachers to draw clearer distinctions between levels, which in my view does give students greater clarity about what the next level requires.  Not to mention that now teachers must carefully define what “exceeding the standard” requires. 

Clarity of Standards

PBL has not only asked teachers for clarity, but schools as well.  Because PBL requires a very precise enunciation of goals, schools have been forced to rethink what is important to teach.  This too has raised positive questions: Should content determine graduation standards?  Or should so-called transferable skills be included as well?  How should work habits be assessed and valued?  

One of the promising distinctions that many PBL systems make is that between subject area proficiencies and habits of work.  This (theoretically) allows for clearer focus on prioritizing real learning rather than compliance, while also isolating exactly what habits of work schools expect (and hopefully teaching those habits).  Once again, the promise is that clearer understanding on the part of schools leads to greater clarity of expectations and therefore better teaching and learning.

A Clear Focus on Proficiency, Not on “Passing”

Here’s another place that PBL is more clear: It focuses all of our conversations — with students, with parents, and with fellow educators — around the pursuit of proficiency, instead of around “passing.” This is positive because it keeps the focus on learning, rather than on compliance.  Plus, because PBL prioritizes demonstrations of proficiency rather than the accrual of points, PBL keeps the focus on substantive and (hopefully) authentic demonstrations of learning, rather than on completing enough worksheets.  This is incredibly promising.  There is something so different about telling a student, under PBL, “You need to show me evidence” compared to saying, under the old system, “You need to do your work.” It’s a subtle but powerful change.

Now, for some negative aspects of PBL.

The Downside of “Clarity”: Too Much Detail

But here’s the problem.  PBL aspires to make everything clear by being really, really specific.  But that push for specificity fundamentally inclines PBL toward complexity. It pushes teachers to parse everything, to break it all down into skills and sub-skills, to enumerate standards and performance indicators, to describe more, to report more. Done wrong, this specificity leads to report cards with too many standards to digest, rubrics with too many words, data collection instead of assessment.  Before you know it, you’ve sacrificed clarity in the name of detail and data. This fundamental problem can be seen in many facets of the system, some of which are described below.

Losing the Big Picture

Along those lines, PBL can engender a kind of myopic focus on minute sub-skills — rather than on a holistic, authentic approach to the wider goals of growth and learning.  The old system had this same issue too, of course.  And I actually think that the simultaneous implementation of Act 77, a piece of legislation very much focused on holistic educational success and authentic learning, has helped buffer this issue.  That said, the old system, with its “hodgepodge” grade calculation, watered down by a (sometimes oblique) mixture of content and work habit grades, did incline more toward holistic conversations about a student’s progress than any system whose business it is to monitor well-parsed, well-differentiated standards and skills. Again, that’s not to say that the new, PBL-inspired conversations aren’t more focused on learning than on compliance, just that too often “learning” can mean “Math subskill 482.4a” rather than “critical thinking” or “reading ability.”

More Data Is Not Always Better

I often think that opening up online portals for parents and guardians and students to view, which most Vermont schools did relatively recently, created a new expectation of transparency that has subtly shifted our thinking about scoring and reporting.  The question of to what extent gradebooks should be decipherable to the layperson is an interesting one that I don’t think we have fully sussed out.  That said, PBL does market itself as providing clarity laypeople — especially students and families and colleges — about exactly what a student knows and can do. One of its strongest arguments against the old system was the “black box” critique — the old system told us very little about what a student knows and can do.

But part of the problem with PBL is that in its push to more carefully define everything, PBL creates new complexities in scoring and reporting.  There was something simple and intuitive about the sole course grade derived from a simple average.  It had a clarity to it (flawed as it was): it allowed both students and parents a quick, easy way to judge how a student was doing.  Yes, some of it was focused on compliance (is a student turning in work?), but it was a simple way to tell if a student was learning.  It was not only the fact that daily assignments were built into the grade, but also the differentiation of 0-100 grading scale.  That made it a lot easier to tell just how well a student was really doing.  Whereas a system with fewer levels really lumps a lot of students into the same designation.  It’s nice for clarity of learning objectives, but it’s less instructive for parents wanting to understand how their child is doing.

Yes, many schools still give students course grades under PBL, but if the student must still complete a portfolio of proficiencies within a variety of standards, the simplicity of the course grade is undercut by the complexity of the portfolio.

Think for a moment about the complexity:  Each student (and parent or guardian) must keep abreast of progress on, at the very least, three standards for seven disciplines, most of which require at least two different demonstrations.  That’s 42 different items that must be reported and understood.  There is simply a lot of room for confusion on the part of everyone involved.  Don’t get me wrong — I think portfolio demonstrations are important, but their inherent complexity can be at odds with the notion of clarity that PBL was designed to engender about learning in the first place.  

Portfolio-Based Reporting Systems are Hard to Maintain, and Hard to Report

Again, not all schools report this way, but generally a Mastery- or Proficiency-based system lends itself to being scored as a portfolio.  It makes sense: anytime you need to demonstrate skill on a specific kind of task (rather than just accumulating points in a points-based system), teachers must keep a record of these specific performances, rather than just a running average of your scores.  This is, at heart, a portfolio system.

But unless you’re just assessing students on a single standard within a course (“Geometry,” or “Physics,” say), portfolios can quickly become very complex to score and report.  Normal grading systems must report date, assignment title, and point value; portfolio systems must also report which standards were met, and — this is critical — how many times they were met.

This gets particularly challenging when students are able to address certain standards across multiple years.  Such a system demands that you have a central place where you can “house” the portfolio: next year’s English teacher needs to know how many times Johnny was proficient in my class, so where do we house this information?  And how to get the data to this central location (without spending lots of extra time)?  Such a system can quickly turn into a logistical nightmare, with lots of places for human error, and indecipherable to outsiders.

Of course, you can avoid some of this problem by restricting proficiencies to single courses (all Geometry proficiencies must be done in Geometry class, etc.), but then you run into the old problems of students needing to take classes over again (which is not in the progressive spirit of PBL, and which can come perilously close to simply asking that students merely “pass”).  And you also risk having far too many standards because each course now has its own, separate ones.

But go in the other direction and you’ll quickly realize that the fewer standards you have, the more you need a centralized portfolio — which is . . . tricky to create and to report.

This all sounds like something a computer should be able to handle, but very few grading systems are actually set up to accommodate such requests at all, let alone to convey them in a visually appealing, intuitive display for the layperson.

And any coherence is predicated on the notion that all departments expect the same number of proficient demonstrations.  At my school, one department requires three, while another requires just two (though each must be from a different class).  In some departments, 10th grade or even 9th grade courses present graduation-level opportunities, while in other departments, they don’t.  How could one grading software accommodate all this? 

In the next post, I’ll explain some last thoughts about PBL.

Reflections on Proficiency-Based Learning in Vermont

We are now five years into Vermont’s experiment in proficiency based learning (PBL), and I think it’s an important time to pause and take stock of it.  When thinking about PBL, I sometimes feel like the proverbial blind man confronting the elephant.  PBL is such a large, amorphous concept, practiced in so many radically different ways across Vermont, that it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to comment on it with anything approaching a comprehensive understanding.

So I’m just one high school teacher — a teacher of just two grades, juniors and seniors, at that — commenting on PBL.  Still, I’ve read few articles or even meaningful social media posts by other classroom teachers reflecting on PBL.  I offer these reflections in the spirit of adding to the conversation among teachers.  I think it’s an especially important time to do so.

So here are some basic reactions I have to PBL.

First, it’s amazing PBL has lasted this long.  The politics of this reform have been fascinating.  PBL has represented an interesting alliance between conservative reformers (much of the advocacy for PBL and Flexible Pathways-style learning comes from the relatively conservative notion of college and especially career readiness — the genesis of the movement in New Hampshire, which actually adopted it first, came in part from a kind of alliance with the business community) and progressive reformers (the use of grades as holistic measurements rather than competition, the de-emphasis on standardized testing inherent in the movement).  And all of this has been run through the Vermont tradition of local control, sending it spiraling off in a hundred different directions.

I am surprised — as I think a lot of educators are surprised — that Vermont has not scrapped PBL yet — or at least made a very clear public declaration that PBL is an entirely optional means of assessment, as Maine did.  What surprised me most was that there was never a moment when it seemed as though the Vermont public had conclusively had enough.  Yes, there were examples of districts where it went over poorly, but that discontent never seemed to reach a state-wide tipping point.

Why does this surprise me? 

First, PBL runs counter to a variety of cultural expectations that Americans hold for their schools.  Surely by now the cultural expectation of raising an “A student,” for example — thwarted by many current incarnations of PBL, which use 1-4 grading systems — would have spurred greater backlash.  

The deeper issue at play is that PBL is designed to encourage growth and understanding rather than competition, yet many Americans continue to look to schools as meritocratic sorting mechanisms, pitting students against each other in a kind of inherent competition for the finite resources of college placements, scholarship money, and, in a broader sense, economic and political influence.  PBL doesn’t do that, at least not in its purer forms.

Another reason I’m surprised it has lasted this long is the sheer indecipherability of the report card: just a maze of standards and substandards trailing on for pages.  Reading a student’s grades under PBL sometimes feels like trying to read the fine print on your Verizon bill.

So why the lack of open rebellion?  

First, some of the wealthier school districts (where meritocratic concerns might have been most vocal) made smart compromises in their scoring and reporting in order to  make PBL look more like the traditional system.  (A great example is the savvy triangulation made by Vermont’s largest high school.) Second, teachers and administrators have made Herculean efforts — both to translate the new grades into plain English, and — frankly — to sell the positive aspects of PBL.  Perhaps the PBL era even fostered, through its inherent complexity and newness, a new level of communication between teachers and families, which hadn’t existed during the era of online gradebook transparency, during which it was taken as a given that parents didn’t need an in-depth email explaining that Johnny was failing (because it was right there in the parent portal).

Third — and I think this is what a lot teachers of seniors would tell you — the global pandemic blunted the effect of the first senior class graduating under PBL last spring; any thorny questions about students not graduating as the result of any newfangled PBL standards were waved away by the exigencies of life-under-COVID.  

Fourth, it’s simple politics:  Vermont has a more progressive bent than most other states, including Maine, and I think the population here is simply more tolerant of progressive educational experimentation, especially coming in the wake of the conservative No Child Left Behind-era, which burned us all out on standardized testing and high-stakes accountability — policies that have never gone over well in our liberal state.  PBL couldn’t be further from those policies, and its liberal, holistic feel probably worked even more in its favor during the Trump era, particularly alongside other liberal ed reforms sweeping Vermont: Restorative Practice, Flexible Pathways, and the various incarnations of education-for-social-justice.

No matter what, the political backlash that never came was striking.  In the meantime, what really stood out to me as an on-the-ground educator during the PBL revolution in Vermont was the extent to which:

1)  It didn’t really seem like anyone knew what PBL was supposed to look like.  There was no mention of its connection to similar prior experiments, such  Mastery Based Learning, or Outcome-Based Education, which was interesting.  And it was never clear which if any other states had actually attempted to implement such a system.  There were always these mythical schools that had done it — Chugach School District in Alaska, Casco Bay in Maine — and I found myself often wishing I could take a pilgrimage to one of these places, just to observe what this magical system looked like.  

2)  The question of whether this system had ever been shown to work was never particularly discussed, at least not to the rank and file like me.  Again, it was interesting that no one ever wanted to make the connection to previous efforts with Mastery Learning or Outcome-Based Education, which was especially strange where I work given that we several older teachers who’d been using Mastery Learning successfully for years.  There were even teachers who remembered Competency-Based Learning in the form of minimum competency subject tests in the late 1970s.  Nobody pushing the new reforms wanted to discuss these prior efforts, their connection to the current reforms, or the extent of their effectiveness.  It was as though, because the old stuff had long ago fallen out of favor, their association would compromise the beautiful new movement.  Or maybe — as I began to suspect — the purveyors of PBL circa 2015 didn’t really know much about OBE or Mastery Learning.

3)  It was the best of — and the worst of — Vermont’s local control.  PBL was an amazingly decentered reform.  It just never seemed like anyone knew what we were supposed to be doing and no one was coordinating our efforts.  This was a problem, of course, given that we’ve seen districts take such wildly different approaches.  In practice this looked like every district figuring it out themselves and constant rumors floating through the staff room regarding other schools’ better, smarter approaches (five years ago I just got sick of hearing the phrase, “At CVU what they do is . . .”).  The notion that we’re all wasting a lot of effort and missing good ideas simply because we’re not collaborating across districts has haunted us through this whole process.

On the other hand, I’ve appreciated the fact that we’ve had to think this all through for ourselves, that the state didn’t just come in and tell us what to do.  I actually think that this led to two benefits.  First, there was surely a lot of wasted effort on the part of lone actors repeating the mistakes of other districts, but there was also surely a great deal of innovation achieved in the process as these lone districts were also free to pursue local solutions in their own way.

Second, I also think that the fact that we all had to think everything through for ourselves actually led all of us to reconsider many of our fundamental assumptions about teaching and learning (for example — what should constitute graduation-level work?).  This process has been tremendously healthy for educators and it wouldn’t have been the same had we been given a list by the state instead of organically arriving at our own answers.  

I’ll be surprised if PBL survives in the long run.  A few months ago, I got an email from the Great Schools Partnership, a non-profit organization in Maine that for many years seemed to be the driving force behind implementing PBL in New England.  The email I received was advertising trendy new materials and workshops based almost entirely on social justice and racial equity.  What a mark of the times — PBL is no longer the cutting edge trend; even the Great Schools Partnership, the bulwark of PBL, has moved on.  From what I can tell, most of the early adopter-types, the cutting edge progressive educators who carried PBL have also moved on to issues of social justice and equity.  The proposals of the Rowland Fellowships here in Vermont are always a great barometer of what’s hot.  In 2017, many of the fellows were pursuing matters of PBL; by 2018, none were.  By now PBL is, in some sense, part of the landscape.  If we never had the widespread backlash against it that many of us thought we would, I don’t get the sense that it’s something most educators feel passionately in favor of.  And ask students their opinion — something I do myself from time to time — and most of them will tell you that they’d rather return to the traditional system.  I am not saying this is the right thing to do, only reporting what I mostly hear.  I see the structural requirements of PBL quietly slipping away, just like Mastery Learning and Outcome Based Education did, the earth gradually reclaiming it until 1-4 scoring recedes back toward the 0-100 or traditional alpha grading scale.  

But the theories and the practices of PBL — some positive and some negative — will have informed an entire generation of educators and students.  And that’s an important legacy that will continue to be felt for a long, long time in Vermont education.

Or who knows?  Perhaps PBL will last?  I hope I have made it clear here that we in education have certainly seen far, far worse in just the last twenty years.

My only hope is that the next time — thirty years from now, perhaps — that the ideas of PBL swing back into favor, we’ll take some time to learn a thing or two from the history of these similar reforms.  We are wise to base on new “innovations” on what we learn from the past — both strengths and weaknesses — rather than charging ahead in a glow of excitement and passion.  After all, as PBL teaches us, the best learning is always iterative.


In the next post, I’ll go into some of the specific pros and cons of PBL as a system, with an eye toward delving a little deeper in order to understand what’s positive and what’s negative about the system itself.

Reflections on Proficiency-Based Learning In Vermont (Part 1)

We are now five years into Vermont’s experiment in proficiency based learning (PBL), and I think it’s an important time to pause and take stock of it.  When thinking about PBL, I sometimes feel like the proverbial blind man with the elephant.  PBL is such a large, amorphous concept, and it’s practiced in so many radically different ways across Vermont that it’s hard to imagine anyone who’s able to comment on it with anything more than just a kind of provincial understanding.

With that caveat, here are some reflections from my experience as a Vermont educator teaching — juniors and seniors under the first few years of PBL.

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The Dreamkeepers

The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children: Ladson-Billings, Gloria

Book:  The Dreamkeepers, by Gloria Ladson-Billings

This is a classic, and I really enjoyed it.  At just 156 pages (minus a second-edition afterward, and a lengthy appendix), it’s not long, and it’s also written in that hard-to-achieve balance between academically authoritative and literate / accessible.  I’ll skip the book’s background and just say that I have been intrigued by culturally relevant / responsive / sustaining pedagogy for a few years now, and as always, I wanted to go back to the source, which Ladson-Billings, and especially this book, are.  I wasn’t disappointed.

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Shadows on the Cave

It’s spring break right now, so I’ve got a lot of books on the side table next to what my son calls the “Dada couch.” I’ve been reading Shelby Steele’s book, “The Content of Our Character,” an old book, and one very much out of vogue at the moment, but deeply rich, inward, human.  I’ve also been reading the great Gloria Ladson-Billings — several of her main journal articles (“Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education”) as well as her early 90s classic, The Dreamkeepers.  Just finished it a few days ago, and I’ve got a longer blog post coming out soon about it.  I really enjoyed it — it’s so accessible.  It’s about a lot of things — community, believing in children, why experience in teaching matters (especially with African American students), why teachers must know the children before them.  What a book it is. More on that in another post.

I have also been reading and re-reading two other books:  reading David Tyack’s 1967 historical work, Turning Points in American Educational History, and re-reading passages of John Dewey’s ultra-classic 1915 work Democracy and Education.  These two works, taken together with The Dreamkeepers, form a triumvirate of approaches that I want to ensure, for the rest of my career, that I’m always in touch with.  Let me explain what they are and why they’re important.

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Vygotsky: My Final Take

I have to be honest, my deep dive the other week into the mysteries of Lev Vygotsky’s Thought and Language left me, in the parlance of today’s politics, “harmed” (and possibly “triggered”).  By the end of a few nights of reading Vygotsky’s technical sentences and lofty concepts, my brain felt like a Belgian waffle.  Vygotsky talks about the internalization of concepts; after reading his work, I had internalized a sense of failure.  It’s tough going, dense and abstract, not exactly the kind of thing you can absorb while relaxing on the couch at night, stealing glances at “Lone Star Law.” It takes a sustained effort before you finally start to pick up what he’s saying.  Then you turn to Page 2. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological  Processes (8601300367804): Vygotsky, L S, Cole, Michael, John-Steiner,  Vera, Scribner, Sylvia, Souberman, Ellen: Books
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There’s a lot there: One chapter of Vygotsky’s “Thought and Language”

Vygotsky Notes: Chapter 6, Thought and Language

It has taken me some time, but I spent the past week working my way through a single chapter of Vygotsky’s Thought and Language.  This post is a summary of some of the remarkable things I found in there.  I choose this chapter because it contains mention of Vygotsky’s famous concept: the Zone of Proximal Development.  But, my goodness, there is so much more in just this single (lengthy) chapter.

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Time to Read Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky - Wikipedia

I’ve had Lev Vygotsky’s “Thought and Language” on my to-read pile (located on the floor of my office) for sometime.  More importantly, I’ve had Vygotsky himself on my “to-read” pile for sometime, too.  I wanted to take some words here to mentally run through my understanding of him and my context for encountering him — and to describe my initial understanding of his theories — before I write about what I learn from reading his work.

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Taking the Long View

There have been two experiences lately that have helped me gain a very different perspective on my role as an educator.  More specifically, both experiences have shown me just how narrowly we teachers too often view our roles and view our students.  The first “experience” I had was reading Lawrence Cremin’s work on educational history.  I’ve written about that previously, but I’ll say a bit more about it.  The second experience — an ongoing experience — has been parenting.

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