Monday, December 16, 2013

An Outline of How Our Curriculum Model Works . . .

So I thought it might be helpful to try to build a better understanding among parents and community members about how our model of curriculum works, and how it is different from the "old way".  First, let's explain what the different components of our curriculum are called, what each part contains, and how it is related to the other parts. . .

First, our overall PBE curriculum centers around THREE key areas.  In our traditional system, curriculum was solely centered around content area learning.  If you did well in math, you got a good grade.  If you did well in History, you got a good grade, etc. etc. for all content areas.  In our PBE curriculum, there are THREE key areas:  Content, Habits of Mind, and Complex Reasoning Skills.  The content is the same content areas outlined in Maine's Learning Results and very similar to the same content we spent our time with as students in the "old" system:  Math, ELA, Science, Social Studies, Foreign Language, Performing Arts, CTE, etc.  Habits of Mind refers to things like getting work turned in on time, doing complete work, giving things your best effort, etc.  These are a lot like many of the things your teachers probably asked of you when you were a student, only you were "graded" on them as part of your content knowledge.  In our curriculum, the same expectations exist, we're just assessing them for what they are - Habits of Mind and NOT content understanding.  In other words - we figured out that just because you can write neatly and turn papers in on time, doesn't mean you understand the Bill of Rights! Finally, the last component is Complex Reasoning Skills.  Again, in the past these were part of your overall grade in the content area.  In our PBE curriculum we believe these skills are important enough to assess separately.  Skills like Decision making, problem solving, deduction, persevering, goal setting, etc. can all be found under the category of "Complex Reasoning Skills".

Each of these three key components is then broken down further.  At the largest level, we have what are called "Strands".  These are mostly organizational in nature to help us understand where students are.  The next largest level of learning is called a "Measurement Topic".  Then, each Measurement Topic is broken down into Learning Progressions (or scopes) which are further broken down into Learning Targets.  Each Learning target has a "scale" that defines the level of learning required to demonstrate proficiency (otherwise known as taxonomy) at each Learning Target.  If I were to create an organizational chart for each of these components it would look like this:

Content Area (example:  Reading)


Strand (example:  Informational)


Measurement Topic (example:  Text Structures and Features)


Learning Progressions (7 learning levels)


Learning Targets


Scales that outline what specific skills at what levels of learning must be demonstrated to meet proficiency.

Students are expected to demonstrate proficiency (a score of a three) for each Learning Target.  Once they have completed all the learning targets in each progression, they will have demonstrated proficiency at the Measurement Topic Level, which is required by law.

Now, does this mean that students go along their Learning Target progressions in lock step order, checking things off as they go, mindlessly moving from one to the next to the next until they've checked them all off?  NO.  Let's see if I can clarify. . .

First, part of the teacher's job is to understand where each student is at in their learning and then build each student up in their learning from where they are to where they need to be.  The intent is NOT to force students to mindlessly start at level 1 and then move from one item to the next, either re-learning materials they already know, or being asked to learn materials they aren't ready for.  The teacher uses multiple methods to determine where a child is at in their learning and they enter the learning progressions at the levels they are at.

Secondly,  students do not have to work solely on one Measurement Topic (MT) at a time.  Lessons are created that allow multiple MT's to be worked on simultaneously, even across content areas so that students can "mix it up" and not feel as though they are marching along one path of learning.

Overall, this system has been created so that the focus of learning is NOT about identifying who is going to teach what, when "it" is going to be taught, where "it" is going to be taught, or even how "it" is going to be taught!  The students get to drive the answers to these questions!  Instead, this system was created to identify what the essential knowledge is, what the progression of this learning is, what it looks like to be proficient at this learning, and what are the various ways students could demonstrate their understanding of this knowledge.  The system is created to make the student the "driver" and while the teacher still teaches. .. they are doing so with the individual student's learning needs at the center of all that they do!

Long enough post for now. .. more later! :)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

2013-14 Changes in K-5 Grading within our PBE System

The 2013-14 School year will mark the first year that we will be using our new grading system for students in grades K-5 within RSU 3.  Elementary teachers within RSU 3 have been using the EDUCATE software system to track student learning since the first day of school and now for our first trimester reporting, we will be reporting using our new grading system.  Although we have used a 1-4 scale in the past for reporting to parents about their student learning at this age level, our new 1-4 scale is very different and therefore requires some emphasis to ensure understanding.

In our "old" 1-4 grading system, a four meant that a student was exceeding the standard, a three meant that they were meeting the standard, a 2 meant that a student was partially meeting a standard and a one meant that the student was not meeting the standard.  THAT WAS OUR OLD SYSTEM.  In our new system we expect that every student will meet proficiency on the learning targets.  It is no longer "ok" to simply not meet a learning target and move on, although that doesn't mean students will be forced into a "lock-step" approach to learning either - but more on that one in another post.  In our new system a four still means that a student has demonstrated an understanding of a learning target that goes "above and beyond" expectations.  A three means that a student has met proficiency of knowledge for that learning target.  NOW HERE'S WHERE THINGS CHANGE A BIT . . . a two no longer indicates that a student is partially proficient and is therefore somehow "bad".  In our new system a two indicates that a student has demonstrated a solid understanding of the foundational knowledge required to become proficient at the learning target.  In laymen's terms then, a two means that the student is doing just fine at the foundational knowledge level, they just haven't met proficiency on the learning target yet (and the key word there is yet).  A one then means that a student needs help with the foundational knowledge and if a student hasn't started a learning target yet not score will appear.

When parents of students in grades K-5 see their child's learning report for the first trimester, you will see reports under each content area that the student has worked and met learning targets in.  For each content area (we're focusing on Math and ELA for the first trimester reporting) you will see the scope level that your child is working on for each measurement topic.  These scope levels start with the first thing a student would learn for that particular measurement topic.  Each measurement topic has any number of scope levels.  These scopes represent the learning progression for that topic.  They do not represent grade levels.  These scopes always start with the first level (level 1) simply because that is where the student is expected to enter their learning on the measurement topic.  There are then as many learning scopes (levels) listed as is required to demonstrate proficiency of the measurement topic.  A student would demonstrate proficiency (3) at one scope level and then move to the next where they may be a (1) or a (2).  They will remain at that scope level until they've reached proficiency (a 3) and then move on to the next scope level until the scopes are completed and they've demonstrated proficiency in that learning target.

This may be slightly confusing to parents initially.  I would encourage any parent who has questions to contact their child's teacher to talk about what your child's report means in order to open up a dialogue that will help you to better understand.  Additionally, it might help you to know that what you see reported here in the first trimester is not what the total "package" will look like.  We are trying to slowly phase in this new reporting system so we're not throwing everything out there at once.  Over the course of the next few trimester reporting cycles we'll also be adding in reporting on "Habits of Mind" for your child, and adding a "status" column that indicates whether the student is "on pace" in their learning or "not on pace" in their learning according to their teacher.  Additionally, we will be asking for parent volunteers to pilot access to their child's EDUCATE account online with the intent of opening up all student accounts to parents for the beginning of next year (2014-15).

Ultimately, we believe that this new reporting system will be more clear and more targeted to assist parents in having conversations about their child's learning with teachers and with their children in ways that will help build up true partnerships between the school and home.  Parents will ultimately have full access to their child's EDUCATE accounts and will be able to track their student's progress daily.  Again, I would encourage any parent who receives these new report cards and is unclear about what they might mean to contact your child's teacher immediately to open up lines of communication that will help everyone to better understand what our new system of Proficiency Based Education means for your child's learning.

Monday, November 18, 2013

So is Everything all "Peaches and Cream" regarding Initial Implementation of PBE in RSU 3?

I'd be lying if I said "yes". .. things are just going off without a hitch!  :)

I believe in honesty so I'll be honest. .. change is hard!  Are we running into "bumps in the road"?  "Yes"  Are we working to overcome these "bumps"?  "Yes"  Are these "bumps" insurmountable?  "No"  Are these "bumps" opportunities for learning?  "Absolutely"!

Some of these "bumps" include the general issue of change.  Its hard to change.  I don't like to change, you don't like to change. . . students don't like to change, and parents don't like to change.  NO ONE likes to change!  But clearly, not changing is not an option for our children's future (just view my second post that outlines the reasons why RSU 3 is moving to PBE in the first place) so we have to change in order to improve our educational system to meet the needs of all our learners.  If I were to venture a guess as to what percentage of "bumps" are simply change related. .. I'd probably "guestimate" that at more than 50%. . .probably closer to 60% to be honest.

That being said, we have experienced other "bumps" as well.  Here's a quick list that comprises the other 40% or so:

-  TIME and the connected MONEY - there just isn't time in the day to learn and figure out this new model while at the same time asking teachers to continue to "fly the ship".  We're asking teachers to "digest" and implement an entirely new curriculum and a new methodology for assessment.  We're asking teachers to re-think the entire structure of what it is they were taught to do in collage and what it is they themselves experienced as students.  That's A LOT of work, on top of still trying to provide caring and safe environments for children during the day.  If we ask for additional time from teachers to do this work then we rightly need to provide payment for that time.  BOTH resources (time and money) are seemingly in shorter and shorter supply in education!

-  Communication - across a 440+ square mile district, across 9 different schools, and 11 different communities the ability to communicate effectively becomes "stretched" to say the least!  Add in the high cost of gas and not being able to get people physically present for public forums and other on site activities and its REALLY HARD!  This either breeds insufficient information or misinformation - both are equally dangerous and equally troubling "bumps" in the road that we continue to "battle" day in and day out (which I hope to some degree this Blog will help with. .. time will tell)!

- Pacing - for some this change is going "too fast" and for others this change is going "too slow".  Where is the happy "medium" - the balance?  This is unique to every district attempting to implement PBE.  Therefore there are no "right" or "wrong" answers, and often any answer is seemingly "wrong" because at any given time either the "go faster" or the "go slower" group is NOT HAPPY!

-  Philosophical discussions - as I mentioned earlier, change is hard. .. and part of change is talking about and identifying what it is you believe in and then working to make that change a reality for children.  These conversations take time and they are sometimes not pleasant when the individual beliefs of some run into the individual beliefs of others.  In order to be able to have these types of conversations and positively move forward from them, a safe and trusting climate has to be created to allow these types of conversations to occur.  As hard as you work to create this climate, sometimes when the going gets tough you have to step back and work on that again before you can push ahead.

These are some of the VERY REAL challenges we face as a district moving forward.  The key to overcome these challenges is to have a clear vision (which we have) and consistent, patient, open minded, and dedicated/committed leadership at all levels (students, parents, teachers, admin., etc) who stay focused on making that vision a reality over time.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

How Are We Working To Implement This New System Here in RSU 3?

So, a lot of people are asking about how RSU 3 is working to implement a PBE system in our schools.  As you can imagine, this is a pretty complex question since we are asking teachers, administrators, parents, and students to re-think the traditional model of delivering education in ways that contradict how they themselves experienced education, and how they may have been taught to deliver educational programming in their own pre training courses and programs in college.  That being said, we're taking it pretty slow overall, and even that is complex to try to explain!

Overall, we're trying to build this system at the district and community level (through development of a new mission/vision and strategic plan, as well as policies) at the same time we're building this system at the classroom level (developing new curriculum, grading practices, tracking systems, training, etc.)

At the district level, we've completed an 18 month process to create a new Mission/Vision for RSU 3 that defines our "preferred future" for our schools.  This isn't where we are - its where we WANT TO BE.  This process involved students, teachers, parents, and community members from across RSU 3.  We are currently in the midst of creating a Strategic Plan that will help put some more "meat on the bones" of this mission/vision to be more clear about how we will make our mission/vision a reality over time.  This work is ongoing and also includes students, teachers, parents, and community members.  Also, at the Board level we are adding a second Board meeting to each month for the purpose of educating the Board on our PBE system so that they may begin to tackle policy level issues such as graduation requirements, grading practices, etc. later on this spring.

At the classroom level, we've spent two years providing professional development to our teachers on this system and how it works.  We have adopted a new curriculum based upon the work of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning that we are also working to "customize" for our own local purposes.  We have asked teachers to participate in this curriculum development and revision process, and we have provided training to all teachers in grades K-12 about what the curriculum is, how to access it, and how to navigate within it.  We've started by emphasizing the creation of "student centered classrooms" - so you've probably seen a lot done with School Visions, Classroom Codes of Cooperation, and things called Standard Operating Procedures or SOP's.  These are intended to help teachers build the classroom environments that must exist before we can launch into more full implementation of the curriculum.

Teachers have also worked to break the curriculum out into grade levels (K-12) to help teachers begin to translate between our current age or time-based system and where we want to eventually be with a PBE system.  We've broken our Measurement Topics and Learning Targets across grade levels (or courses at the High School) to make sure teachers know what they are responsible for so that we don't create "gaps" in student learning as we continue to transition into this new system.  The overall work of creating the curriculum, training teachers in its use and creating student centered learning environments for all students in grades K-12 has been the major focus of our work over the past two years.

This year, teachers in grades K-5 will be using EDUCATE as our new reporting system.  This means that teachers are being asked to grade on a 1-4 scale.  Now, the 1-4 scale isn't new per say - as our Elementary teachers have been reporting out 1-4 for a while, HOWEVER - the scale itself is new.  In the old 1-4 scale, a 3 was "proficient" while a 2 was "partially proficient" an a 1 was "not proficient" with a 4 being "advanced" or "above proficient".  In our new scale. .  . a 3 is still "proficient" but a 2 means that the student is proficient at the foundational knowledge level.  This means that students receiving 2's is just fine.  It doesn't mean they are "behind", it just means they are at that level and are working towards becoming proficient at the target.  As you can imagine, this is a little confusing - so we're spending a lot of time with teachers making sure this is clear and helping them to explain it to parents who want to know whether their child is doing "well" in their learning.

An even harder issue we are focusing on this year is at the Middle School and High School Level on the topic of creating consistent grading practices for students of these learning levels.  This has been an ongoing and difficult conversation that we will need to take plenty of time on before rushing to sweeping changes.  Basically, we're having important philosophical conversations around issues like:  "Should students be given zeros?"  or "Should students be allowed to re-take formative assessments?"  or "How should homework be counted?"  We're trying to have these conversations with teachers to build a philosophical understanding of what we should be doing for grading practices within a PBE system and then we can figure out how best to report that out to parents.  To be honest, the Middle School is a little ahead of the High School on these conversations.  Our ultimate goal is to have Middle School use EDUCATE next year (2014-15) as a reporting tool using a 1-4 scale and then to work at having the High School move to EDUCATE either the following year or the year after.  In the end, we know that students in the class of 2018 need to graduate with a PBE diploma - so we're trying to move forward to hit this deadline set by the state while at the same time honoring and respecting that these are not small changes we are trying to make, so in order to do it right, we can't rush.

This is all a long winded way of saying - in the past few years, we've focused on building out our student centered curriculum and training teachers in its use.  This year we are focused on creating consistent grading practices that align with PBE in grades K-12 with the idea that K-5 will be reported out using this system this year, Middle School next year, and the High School as soon after that as we can.  Meanwhile, we are creating a Strategic Plan, working on educating the public and the Board, working on revising policies, ensuring continued professional development for our teachers, and just trying to figure out how best to communicate these changes to parents and communities across 440 square miles! :)

In the end, this is going to be a long process, one that has already taken about two years, and will more than likely take another 3-4 years before we can say we've moved to a PBE system.  In the meantime, we are trying to push to create this new system while having "one foot" still in the traditional system all while trying to balance the need for change with the need to bring everyone (teachers, students, parents, and community) along in their own understanding of the need for this change!  Not an easy task for sure - but one that we are committed to here in RSU 3!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Informational Resources about what PBE is!

So, let's see if I can offer some links to help people better understand what Proficiency Based Education (PBE) is.  Below is a listing of several links and a brief overview of each that might help people better understand what PBE is.

The purpose of all this information is to help inform parents and community members in RSU 3 about what PBE is and to prompt further questions - FEEL FREE TO ASK QUESTIONS - that's how we understand!  Here goes:

First, here's a little primer to help you understand the reasons why our educational system has to change.  Many of you might have seen this before - its a Sir Ken Robinson Video entitled:  "Changing Educational Paradigms"  Here's the link:

Next up is a link is a link to Maine Department of Education's "Center for Best Practices" page that gives all kinds of resources to parents and community members to better understand what PBE is.  Please keep in mind this is a state level perspective, so local systems will vary regarding the details of how their systems work - including ours!  Here's the link:

Next up is a link also from the Maine Department of Education - but this one is a warehouse of all kinds of short videos archived there that help people to understand some of the great work going into the creation of PBE systems across our state.  These videos give perspectives from students and from teachers and offers a great insight for parents into what truly is going on in the classrooms vs. what some of the misconceptions are of this system.  Here's the link:

Another great link from the Maine DOE is their frequently asked questions site.  This site is geared specifically to help parents and community members from across the state better understand what PBE, and what it isn't.  Here's that link:

At this site - you can check out several "case studies" of school districts in Maine that have moved to PBE and are probably about 2-3 years "ahead" of RSU 3 in their work.  Here's that link:

If you'd like to see some of what's being done with PBE on a national level, here's a link to the Reinventing Schools Coalition, a national foundation whose work is to help school systems "reinvent" themselves into PBE systems.  Here's that link:

Another national organization that is working to help schools systems move towards PBE is the Marzano Labs.  RSU 3 is utilizing the "Art and Science of Teaching" as our instructional framework in this work.  Here's that link:

I think that is plenty of overall information for now. .. future posts will focus on how RSU 3 is implementing this system!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

So, Why Proficiency Based Education? Why Change?

Well this is a very good question!  But to be honest - its TWO distinct questions! :)  Let's take a minute to see if I can help answer the second question first. .. then we'll cycle back to the first one!

So, why did the RSU 3 Board of Directors vote to change their education system and move in the direction of PBE in the Spring of 2011?  Well, here's just a few reasons:

1.  In 2011 our NECAP test results showed that only 45% of our district's students were meeting proficiency in Math, 53% in Reading, and just 30% in writing in grades K-8.

2.  In that same year, our achievement scores at the high school level indicated that just 39% of our students were meting proficiency in Math, 39% in Reading, 29% in Science, and just 28% in Writing.

3.  Just 73% of students at the High School Level wanted to go on to postsecondary training.  Only 56% actually went!

4.  In the first quarter of the 2010-11 school year, 60% of our Middle School students were failing at least one class and just under 40% were failing two or more classes!

5.  Similarly, in the first quarter of the 2010-11 school year, 50% of our High School Freshman were failing at least one class and just over 40% were failing two or more classes!

6.  We had an 86% graduation rate at Mt. View High School

7.  Chronic absenteeism was an issue across all schools where 30% or more of our students were absent  at least 20 or more days of school.

8.  We had two elementary schools on the CIPS list in the area of math (a federal designation for schools that had not met AYP targets), our Middle School was on the CIPS list for both reading and math and our High School was on the CIPS list for both reading and math.

9.  Leadership within the district was unstable.  The Middle School had just hired its 7th principal in 8 years and the District had just hired its 8th Superintendent in 9 years.  Similar transitions had occurred at the Elementary level and at other district administrative levels.

Long story short - RSU 3 was not meeting the needs of its students!  This was not the fault of its hard working and well qualified teachers, nor was it the fault of parents or community.  The Board of Directors correctly identified the problem - it was with our SYSTEM of education.  The traditional "assembly line" system of education that was created back in the 1800's simply no longer worked for our 21st century students and families.  It was time to try something that would . . . enter PBE!

Now comes the answer to the first question - so why PBE?  Our district's problems in meeting the needs of students was clear in our data.  What was also clear is that RSU 3 is a unique school system, comprised of unique learners.  In discussions at the Board level and among faculty and staff, it became clear that we all believed in two very clear facts about our learners:

1.  Students learn at different rates and times, and
2.  Students learn in different ways

After coming to this conclusion, we asked ourselves this question:  How does our current traditional model of education honor these two "truisms"?  The answer was very simply - IT DIDN'T.  Once we realized that, we then sought out to find a system that would honor these two truisms.  Proficiency Based is what we found!

In a PBE system, time becomes a variable and learning becomes a constant (see previous post for more details).  Students must demonstrate proficiency in skills before moving on to master new skills.  Now, some might think this is too "rote" a process and by itself, it probably would be.  But that's where you throw in some of the other key elements that are included in our district's Mission/Vision.  Elements of our system also must include things like (taken from RSU 3 Mission/Vision):

*  Student engagement
*  Student Excitement
*  Student Ownership of their own learning
*  Rigor in the curriculum
*  Transparency - of the system, of the learning, and of the process
*  Student choice (in when they learn what, and how they demonstrate their skills)
*  Student voice (in how they learn best)
*  Students working at their own individual maximum pace
*  Acknowledgement that learning occurs anywhere - not just in the four walls of our schools.

These key elements as outlined in our new Mission/Vision are what drives the development and creation of our own unique PBE system.  This isn't the same as anyone else's PBE system because we are making it in a way that meets our needs and the needs of our unique population of learners!

Identifying the key elements of what our PBE system is and understanding it isn't necessarily the same as any other's will be the topics of future posts!

What is PBE and what are some of its common elements?

So this is my first foray into blogging. . .I'm most definitely a novice - but I thought I'd take my own advice and use the growth mindset approach to take a risk and try this out as a way to communicate with the public on the work that RSU 3 is doing to create a Proficiency Based System of Education for our students in grades PK-12 and beyond!

The first question one might ask if reading this for the first time is - What is a Proficiency Based System of Education (PBE)?  Well, the simple answer is that its a system where standards are used to guide the curriculum and where student progress in demonstrating proficiency (or mastery) of standards is measured and used to determine advancement to higher learning levels.  In a true PBE system students progress from one learning level to another by demonstrating that they've mastered certain skills.  When they are ready to move to the next skill, they move on.  A PBE system is not a time based system where students all move together in their learning at the same time simply because we all know that not all learners learn things in the same way or at the same time.  Each learner is unique and the system is built upon honoring that undeniable fact.

A second question one might ask about PBE in order to better understand what it is and often, more importantly, what it isn't is:  What are some common elements of a PBE system? 
(bullets taken from the MDOE website:

  • Learning is the constant; time is the variable. The proficiency-based approach to learning recognizes that all students learn at their own pace. One student might learn fractions quickly, so there's no reason to hold her back while all other students in the class catch up. By the same token, a student who's taking more time than classmates to master the grammatical concept of "subjects" and "predicates" should only have to move on once he's mastered the concept. In high school, a student who's ready for college-level biology should be able to enroll in Biology 101 at a nearby college campus or online.
  • Learning is customized, engaging. The proficiency-based approach also recognizes that each student learns differently. One student might learn fractions best by reading instructions from a book, watching the teacher demonstrate the concept and practicing with paper and pencil. Another might learn better through a combination of watching instructional videos on YouTube and playing video games that incorporate mathematical concepts. If students are learning in a way that's natural to them -- which is an option that technology makes increasingly easier -- they're more likely to be engaged and excited.
  • Learning is driven by rigorous standards. Maine's academic standards articulate the skills students need to master to be prepared for college, careers and civic life. A proficiency-based unit often starts with the standard. "Describe ways organisms depend upon, interact within, and change the living and non-living environment, as well as ways the environment affects organisms,” for example. Students then work with their teachers to figure out what it means and get to work on projects of their choice that demonstrate they have meet the standard and therefore have mastered the skill.
  • Skilled teaching makes it possible. Proficiency-based learning changes much of what we've assumed about teaching. The teacher's role changes from one of delivering content, to one of working closely with students to help them discover their passions and preferred learning styles, use technology effectively to enhance learning, and decide how they'll demonstrate they've met the expectations.  This does NOT mean that teachers somehow no longer "teach" - it just means they do so in a different way, more as coaches and facilitators vs. the "sage on the stage" approach to teaching.  If done well, a PBE system enhances the teacher's understanding of individual learners and how best to meet their needs.
The RSU 3 Board of Directors has adopted a New Mission and Vision for our district that is based upon this new approach to education.  The process to create this new mission and vision for RSU 3 took 18 months and involved many students, staff, parents and community members.  It is the document that guides our work. . . CLICK HERE and go to our website to view it.  

My next post will try to talk more about the reasons WHY the RSU 3 Board of Directors is working to change the way we "do business" in RSU 3.