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: http://www.maine.gov/doe/cbp/elements.html)
- 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.