Why is this visionary?
Sometimes we tinker with improving education. We tweak a learning strategy or we implement a new behavior management procedure. We see small gains in student learning. Sometimes, not often, we radically alter the landscape of education. Proficiency-based teaching and learning is visionary and landscape altering. How? It answers simple questions that over decades became lost in teaching. It answers: How do we know what students should be learning? How do we know if they learned it? How do we keep everyone learning at their own rate—the students who struggle to learn and the students who learn rapidly? Lastly, the most visionary question of all—what if students who quickly learn the material, instead of waiting for other students to catch up, could just move on to another class?
Traditional Classroom Teaching and Learning
Consider how classroom learning occurs in the current typical classroom. How do we know what students should be learning? The typical classroom learns from a textbook. Students go through the book from the first to the last chapter answering all the questions and doing all the activities. Other ways of determining the knowledge and skills students should learn rarely factor in. How do we know if they learned it? The typical classroom tests at the end of the chapter or unit. Students receive a grade, and the class moves on regardless of student learning. How do we keep everyone learning at their own rate—the students who struggle to learn and the students who learn rapidly? The typical classroom distinguishes between learning rates mostly at the end of the unit by assigning a grade rather than re-teaching during the learning process. What if students who quickly learn the material, instead of waiting for other students to catch up, could just move on to another class? In the typical classroom, students who learn rapidly are given additional work which is called an anchor or enrichment activity because the school structure mandates that all students move to new classes or subjects at exactly the same time.
How is Proficiency-Based Teaching and Learning Visionary?
Making sure we know what students should learn, ensuring that all students have supports to learn, and then grading them on their knowledge seems basic rather than visionary. It is how it is done that is visionary. Student learning becomes the focus of the class.
Teaching with proficiency-based learning completely altered my teaching. I found I could “leave no stone unturned” when my classroom became proficiency-based. I had to develop new teaching skills and effectiveness. Why? In proficiency-based teaching and learning, teachers have more control over deciding what students should know. They use the Common Core Standards as the center, but they have the opportunity to build on them. Of course, education is more than teaching to standards. It includes skills and personal development which also become part of the curriculum. It meant I could no longer simply assign questions from a textbook. I had to write a course curriculum.
In proficiency-based teaching and learning, students are constantly assessed and re-taught. Teachers know daily what each student knows and is capable of. They constantly check learning. Interventions are built into the lessons for those who need it, and other students dive deeper into learning and building skills. Instruction and learning is differentiated. Teachers also use a variety of student-centered engaging activities. What if students who quickly learn the material, instead of waiting for other students to catch up, could just move on to another class? This option is in the future for most Oregon schools. Most students are still tied to seat time and the traditional school schedule.
What is the Status of Proficiency-Based Education in Oregon?
- The State Board of Education adopted a policy promoting credit by proficiency.
- Oregon law OAR 581-022-1131 permits and describes proficiency-based credit.
- The Business Education Compact (BEC) picked up proficiency-based teaching and learning and does extensive work with it.
- A recent book by Diane Smith from the BEC, It’s About Time: A Framework for Proficiency-Based Teaching and Learning, details pilot programs in several schools. The results in those schools show impressive student achievement gains. Hidden Valley High School in Three Rivers School District juniors’ scores went from 62% exceeding on the state test to 81% exceeding for example.
- According to the BEC, as of 2011, more than 2,500 teachers in 119 of Oregon’s 197 school districts are trained in proficiency-based teaching and learning.
Tinker with education or make giant visionary leaps? It is a challenge schools everywhere face.