Schools say they’ll stick with proficiency diploma, even if law is repealed

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AUGUSTA — Faced with the possible repeal of a 6-year-old law that requires schools to move to a proficiency-based diploma for all students, superintendents at area schools said they’ll stay the course and continue implementing a proficiency-based curriculum no matter what the Legislature decides.

This week the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee is set to take up LD 1666, which, as amended, would eliminate the requirement for proficiency-based diplomas, first approved in 2012.

The proposal to eliminate the requirement was made by state Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, who said in a March 15 press release that “instead of a last-ditch attempt to save a misleading scheme that is not working, the Legislature should repeal the … law.”

“Maine’s public education system has been manipulated to force an agenda without engaging parents, teachers and students in the process,” Simpson said. “Repeal(ing) the entire proficiency-based diploma law … would return the decision-making process back to the local school districts.”

Jayne Deneen, clerk to the Education Committee, said members were scheduled to hold a work session on Simpson’s amendment at 1 p.m. Thursday, March 22, but could not say whether the committee would be ready to make a formal recommendation on the idea to the full Legislature at that time.

Originally, the bill called for delaying full implementation of the proficiency requirement for another year, which has already been done several times.

The ultimate goal of the law is to ensure that all high school graduates are proficient in the core content areas of English language arts, mathematics, science, technology and social studies, along with three additional content areas of the student’s choice.

What a proficiency-based curriculum does, according to Melea Nalli, Portland’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, is make it “clear what students have achieved academically,” as well as “the habits of work and learning” they’ve acquired along the way.

And it’s not just superintendents that are committed to sticking with proficiency-based learning.

Educate Maine, which has a goal of ensuring that all Maine students are college or career ready by the time they graduate from high school, is also fully behind the proficiency-based concept.

In testimony provided to the Education Committee, Ed Cervone, executive director of Educate Maine, said implementation of “the proficiency-based diploma has been a priority of Maine’s business community since becoming law.”

“(It’s) a priority,” he said, “because all indicators show that too many Maine students leave school not ready for the next step (and) as Maine works to address a very real demographic and workforce challenge, it is more important than ever to work toward greater equity of opportunity and to improve student success across the board.”

But, Daniel Allen, the instruction and professional development director for the Maine Education Association, testified that the association wants to see a delay in implementation of proficiency-based diploma requirements because “if we are ever going to adequately shape PBD, it requires enough time to do it right under clear and understandable rules. If (not) it will become another failed (educational) reform.”

The problem, as the Maine Department of Education admits, is that the rules governing what school districts must actually do to ensure all students are proficient by graduation have never been fully articulated or adopted.

That’s one reason Paul Hambleton, chief academic officer for the education department, said while “many school districts have made great strides in implementing PBD, others continue to struggle.”

He said it’s the department’s hope to “review and redraft the rules with release of a new proposed version in the coming months,” but that schedule continues to leaves school districts in limbo.

Even so, Steve Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, on Monday said his group fully supports a proficiency-based diploma requirement because “(it’s) a benefit to Maine’s students.”

“The Maine School Boards Association and Maine School Superintendents Association oppose repeal and have been working with the Department of Education and other educational stakeholders to improve (the) current law,” Bailey added.

He said the purpose behind the proficiency-based diploma is to “assure all students from across the state (have) equal opportunity and similar expectations to meet standards in all eight content areas.”

What makes a proficiency-based curriculum different, Bailey said, is that it’s “dependent upon a consistent set of learning targets, … (which) define (the) level of rigor and depth of knowledge students should aspire to and meet if they were to demonstrate proficiency at their grade level. Simply put … students are provided with a transparent target they are trying to meet.”

Bailey said the reason why some districts are well on their way toward fully implementing a proficiency-based learning model and others aren’t is because of the availability of staff to lead and implement this initiative.

“(The) staff involved have to have the knowledge, skills, leadership savvy, and time to lead this effort,” he said. “Additionally, school districts need to have the necessary staff or means to provide access to experiences (that allow) students (to) demonstrate proficiency.”

“World languages is (a) prime example,” according to Bailey. He said most schools “are woefully understaffed and under-budgeted to provide this as an opportunity at the level needed for students to demonstrate proficiency.”

Overall, he called proficiency-based learning “a positive initiative for education in Maine,” but Bailey also acknowledged that “this change will take time. We are creating a system very different from what (most) adults experienced,” when they were in school.

He said the former system was designed “to sort and select students into different pathways (and) set artificial limits on the hopes and dreams of students, (but) this proficiency-based system can be designed to identify targets for all students, provide them the pathway for meeting these targets, and launch them into college, career and life readiness.”

In Portland, Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said, “We are committed to deepening the (proficiency-based learning) work underway … because we believe that we are on a course that is best for our students.”

Nalli, the assistant superintendent, said the Portland Public Schools “have done incredible work” over the past several years “to align around a common vision for what students need to know and be able to do” in order to graduate.

She said either delaying or repealing the state mandate for a proficiency-based diploma would not affect what the Portland schools are doing. “We base our work on … our core beliefs about teaching and learning,” Nalli said, which “is closely aligned to our (overall) achievement and equity goals.”

“This is more about a comprehensive approach to a teaching and learning system (that) emphasizes increased clarity about student strengths and needs relative to a consistent expectation for learning,” she added.

In supporting proficiency-based learning, Botana expressed some frustration with the Legislature.

“It’s common for education policy to change because reforms take time and policymakers are impatient,” he said. “Unfortunately, the experience on the ground for teachers can be whiplash, (but) in our case, … we are committed to implementing a proficiency-based approach.”

Geoff Bruno, the superintendent in Falmouth, is taking the same path and this week said he’s “not sure eliminating the requirement of a proficiency-based diploma would impact what we are already doing in Falmouth.”

“We set a high standard for what we expect our graduates to know and be able to do and have done so for many years,” Bruno said. “Falmouth graduates leave our high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in whatever comes next in life. … Much of our work will remain linked to our local strategic planning process.”

In Yarmouth, Superintendent of Schools Andrew Dolloff said the high school has already implemented a proficiency-based diploma requirement that “would likely change very little if the law were changed.”

“We took a common-sense approach to the law from the outset,” Dolloff said, “methodically implementing proficiency-based education in a way that worked well with our existing practices and seemed to be in the best interests of students.

“(We used) the law to strengthen learning opportunities for students (and) the law can stay or go from my perspective, we’ll just continue to do what is best for students.”

Howard Colter, the interim superintendent in Cape Elizabeth, said it would be “too bad” if the Legislature eliminated proficiency-based diploma requirements.

He said the intentions behind proficiency-based learning “are admirable and (have) real promise. I would rather keep moving ahead rather than throwing the whole effort out the window.”

Ken Kunin, the superintendent in South Portland, said the district’s work on proficiency-based learning would “move forward in any event, regardless of what the Legislature decides (because) it’s positive and holds promise.”

At a recent School Board workshop, Scarborough Superintendent Julie Kukenberger also said the district would continue with proficiency-based education implementation “because it’s what’s best for students, ensuring children are learning the same skills regardless of zip code.”

In Westbrook, the first students to graduate under the proficiency-based diploma model will be the class of 2019.

Superintendent Peter Lancia said proficiency-based learning has merit because it allows us to “reflect on how we teach and how we expect our students to learn.”

Jodi Mezzanotte, the assistant superintendent of schools in Westbrook, added that “proficiency-based education improves teaching and learning. We have seen great results in terms of … student achievement.”

Paul Perzanoski, the superintendent of schools in Brunswick, was one of the only local superintendents to break rank.

He did not speak specifically on the merits of proficiency-based learning, but seemed to agree with Simpson, and said Monday that “diploma requirements should be determined by local school boards and not the state.”

Staff writers Elizabeth Clemente, Michael Kelley, Juliette Laaka and Jocelyn Van Saun contributed to this report.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

The Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee is considering a proposal to repeal a 6-year-old law mandating that Maine schools implement a proficiency-based diploma requirement.

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