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PORTLAND, Maine — Ericka Lee-Winship has taught social studies at Portland High School for 20 years. But lately the veteran teacher has been frustrated by what she sees as an attempt by consultants and policy makers to turn the art of teaching into a quantifiable science.
“By trying to boil education down to a formula, they have taken the creativity out of it,” says Lee-Winship.
The culprit, according to many teachers, is proficiency-based learning, an educational philosophy that emphasizes “21st-century skills,” such as collaboration and innovation, at the expense of content and knowledge. The State of Maine adopted a “proficiency diploma” requirement in 2012, but teachers and parents alike say the model is failing Maine students.
The supposed goal of proficiency education (and other outcome-based models, such as competency-based learning) is to ensure that all students meet certain measurable benchmarks by year’s end and that all who receive a diploma are proficient in specific areas. The model is based on the notion that every kid can become proficient, if given the time. But when time is limited, resources are stretched, and students arrive at school with wildly different experiences, strengths, and weaknesses, it is rarely the case that everyone ends up in the same place in June.
“The system doesn’t take into account the human condition,” says Lee-Winship. “In that sense, proficiency-based learning is impractical.”
It also sets up perverse educational incentives. Because the model focuses on year-end proficiency, teachers are required to let students retake tests and must give full credit for late homework. In theory, this allows students the time they need to master each skill without undue “pressure.” In reality, as anyone with a teenager well knows, it encourages slacking.
Mike Bernier, a longtime English teacher in Lewiston, says that approximately one-third of his students have failed to complete assignments on time since moving to proficiency-based learning (compared with less than 10 percent under the old regime). Bernier says that proficiency-based learning also has led to an increase in student cheating and plagiarism, since students who are permitted to hand in work late can seek the benefit of answers from those who completed the work on time.
Maine teachers are not the only ones seeing these results. In an informal poll of teachers in Albany, Ore., 80 percent said that students demonstrate less effort since the school district adopted an outcome-based model. And who can blame them? When timeliness is no longer required, and mediocrity and excellence both receive the same grade (proficient), it’s no wonder students stop striving.
Proficiency-based education not only warps incentives. It also perverts the curriculum itself. This is particularly true in disciplines such as literature and history, where, traditionally, the goal is to familiarize students with a body of knowledge about which they are then expected to think critically, formulate new ideas, and communicate effectively. In such disciplines, promoting skills at the expense of the content itself leaves students untethered from meaning and unable to communicate effectively about anything. (But never fear: There’s always Google. And Wikipedia. And Alexa.)
Unfortunately, Maine is not the only state that has adopted this flawed model of education. At least 15 other states, including Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont, have passed laws requiring proficiency diplomas. And scores of American school districts have moved toward outcome-based learning, even in the absence of a state diploma requirement.
But in Maine, pushback from parents and teachers is beginning to bear fruit. Last Tuesday, the Legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill to repeal the “proficiency diploma” requirement. But a single senator has put a procedural hold on the measure, and it is unclear if it will reach the governor’s desk.
Even in the event of repeal, however, districts remain free to issue proficiency diplomas and to continue this unsound educational approach. And many districts that have already spent large sums of money transitioning to proficiency learning are unlikely to change course. They should.
Parents and teachers understand that the purpose of education is to train students for a lifetime of citizenship, not to reward every student with a participation trophy. Will bureaucrats and policy makers listen to these stakeholders? Or will they continue to implement an unworkable educational model that, at best, mints graduates who are merely “proficient”?
Jennifer C. Braceras is a senior fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum.