Sunday, November 3, 2013

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.  


  1. Besides parent teacher conferences, how will we as the parents be made aware of areas of study that our children may need more help in to become proficient? I know almost all of us are used to the old standard of learning and we will be adapting to this new system as well as our children. What can we as parents do to help our children to become proficient and excel in their studies? Are there any suggestions on how we can help them according to the PBE standards?

  2. GREAT QUESTIONS! So to answer your first question, one of the big ways is something you'll be seeing as parents for the first time in December when we send home "report cards". What you'll notice is that these report cards are going to look VERY DIFFERENT from how they have looked in the past because teachers will be using our new PBE software tracking system called EDUCATE to report out on student's progress towards their learning. The first thing that we want to encourage parents to do is that when they get these new reports - contact your student's teacher to ask questions. It is through these types of conversations that both parents and teachers will learn better how to communicate student learning progress in a way that makes sense not only to teachers, but more importantly to parents as well.

    Additionally, we have plans to provide public forums at each school after the first trimester reporting to allow parents to come in and sit with principals and teachers to better understand the reports and what they mean and don't mean.

    As we build up to the first trimester reporting, we are sending information out to parents via school newsletters regarding what to look for in the reports and we will continue using newsletters as a way to get information out throughout the year.

    Another things parents can do is go to our district's webpage ( and click on the "student learning" tab. Once you see the drop down, click on "Curriculum". Once there - check out the resources - one of which is a sample report card with explanations of what everything on it means!

    Finally, just stay in touch with your child's teachers. They are the best mode of communication with parents regarding what is being taught, what Learning Targets students are working on, and how parents can best help their children to be successful in their learning. By keeping those lines of communication open - true partnerships can form that will do nothing but help students succeed!

    Did that help answer your questions?

  3. I am excited by proficiency based education. Every time I think about a classroom of 20 students learning a particular target or standard in their own way, I find myself wondering how a single teacher both supports and ensures that happening. How does this look in districts that have already successfully implemented PBE?

  4. That's a very good question Kate. Of course, its hard to answer - because it looks a little different in every school attempting to implement PBE, and RSU 3 is no different than that! What I can tell you is that the key is to build structures within the classroom that allows the teacher to "juggle" multiple things at a time. In RSU 3 we've been placing a lot of focus on using the "workshop model" of instruction for ELA and now moving into Math. This is actually a "tried and true" model of instruction that has been used for years in Elementary schools all over. The basic idea is to create "stations of learning" with specific focus on students working on specific learning targets in small groups of students who are working on similar learning targets. One of the "stations" is ALWAYS teacher guided, which allows teachers to work with students in small groups and meet their direct needs. The key is building a classroom climate and culture of expectations that allows teachers and students to understand what their responsibilities are during this type of instruction and what the expected outcomes are.

    If I were to walk into a classroom, I might see a lesson start with the teacher providing a "mini-lesson" to all students on a particular topic - let's say its the use of illustrations to help understand what is occurring in a story...the teacher would provide 10-15 minutes of whole group instruction - maybe reading a story to everyone illustrating and modeling how to use illustrations. The teacher, previous to this mini lesson, would have created learning stations focused on particular learning targets associated with reading and writing and would have assigned students to small groups that align with these needs. Once the mini-lesson is done the teacher would release students to these small group activities and through previous work, students would know what their responsibilities are during this time. . . the teacher would pull each group up (as part of their rotations, etc) to give small group and intense instruction while other students are working. ..

    That's just a quick kind of "run down" of how something like this might look. Other structures that help are teachers that team up together to allow grouping and regrouping of students based upon measurement topics that go across grade levels - again allowing teachers to work with smaller groups of students on similar measurement topics.

    It really can work - and so far we're finding that for the most part in RSU 3 - it is allowing teachers to really DIG IN to the individual needs of students - freeing up teacher time to work with their most needy students to provide that "extra push" as well as allowing opportunities for those students who want to "fly ahead' to do so without being held back. We might have a couple of teachers who have misinterpreted how this should work and have created "worksheet blizzards" for students - but those are just a few and are being instructed on how their methodology can change and improve to better TEACH.

    Hope that helps answer your question? If not - let me know and I'm more than happy to try again! :)

  5. Heather, I really appreciate this explanation because it goes beyond talking in more general language about the philosophy and hoped-for outcomes of PBE. (Also important of course, but this feels much more meaty and concrete.) It describes what learning could actually look like in the classroom for our kids. I also appreciate this explanation because it helps me envision what volunteering could look like and how I as a volunteer could be helpful in a PBE based learning environment.

    I wonder about whether you might consider a post in the future about how PBE specifically supports students who struggle in a particular area, whether math or literacy or so forth, and maybe an additional separate post on how PBE supports students who excel in a particular area, to build on your answer here. All just thoughts for consideration.

  6. Nice idea Kate. .. .thanks. .. probably one of those will be the content for my next post! Much appreciated!

  7. Is there a link somewhere on the schools website that shows the different levels of learning targets that are being used?