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Wednesday, December 22, 2021

It matters who they know, not just what they know.



In recent years, the term “asset-based” has become increasingly popular in youth development and education lexicons. It marks an important, and arguably long overdue shift toward understanding and intentionally building on students’ strengths and talents, rather than focusing exclusively on their deficiencies. More often than not, however, calls to take a more asset-based approach in schools situate individual students as the locus of control and change. Individual strengths, experiences, and perspectives are celebrated and built upon.   But our research on social capital suggests that the concept of assets is accurate yet incomplete. The reality is that students’ assets reside not just within, but around them in their networks.


  1. If you want to understand broader networks that students have access to outside of your school or program → Try social network mapping: For decades, social workers have used asset mapping, a close cousin to relationship mapping, in order to assess the support networks of their clients. One example is the Social Network Map, developed by researchers Elizabeth Tracy of Case Western Reserve University and James Whittaker of the University of Washington. Their tool helps case managers identify and sort the structure and quality of a client’s support system by mapping relationships into several categories, including family, peers, friends, and co-workers. Researchers recommend doing multiple rounds of relationship or social network mapping because students may forget to include certain connections that make a difference in their lives. You can gain a more complete picture of who your students know and depend on by revisiting relationship and social network maps. Read more about this approach in the article “The Social Network Map”.

  1. If you’re trying to better understand relationships inside your school or department → Try relationship mapping protocols with your team and students:  Relationship mapping is a strategy that can help schools adjust their practices to effectively forge trusting relationships between students and adults. All it takes is a roster of student names and two sets of different colored stickers for staff to visualize patterns among whom they feel they have a strong relationship with and whom they believe may be at risk for academic, personal, or other reasons. Larger schools and institutions may prefer to move through the process one grade level or department at a time. You can also perform mapping exercises across both staff and students to compare the results. From there, schools that identify students who lack trusting relationships with adults or faculty can direct additional connections and resources accordingly. For example, watch Ted Dintersmith’s Innovation Playlist to see relationship mapping in action at Jamestown Public Schools.

  1. If you’re working in a resource-scarce, human capital-scarce environment → Use relationship and networking mapping as a student project to identify latent resources: Not only does relationship mapping provide more detailed information regarding whom your students know and turn to—it can also surface relationships that you could enlist more deliberately to expand supports or opportunities at your institution. Make sure you have a shared contact database where you can store these connections so that they remain within reach for your community to tap into in the future.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Michael Horn on the Purpose of Schooling

Through much of the 1800s, a kind reading of history would say that the central role of public schools was to preserve American democracy and inculcate democratic values.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, competition with a fast-rising industrial Germany constituted a mini-crisis. The country shifted by creating a new role for public schools: to prepare everyone for vocations. That meant providing something for everyone, with a flourishing of tracks and courses and enrollment in high school.

Another purpose was added to America’s schools in the late 1970s and early 1980s: keeping the country competitive. Although this one had echoes of the prior purpose, it was quite different, as the nation became consumed by how students were doing in school as measured through average test scores.

The vast choices that students had in a “cafeteria-style curriculum,” the landmark report “A Nation at Risk” noted, was one “in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main courses.” Having something for everyone, in other words, was no longer a virtue. It was a vice.

Just 20 years later, the primary purpose shifted again to asking schools to eliminate poverty by not just focusing on schools’ average test scores, but instead to make sure that children in every demographic, on average, reach a basic measure of proficiency in core subjects. The theory of action, in essence, was that academic achievement would unlock opportunity.

As much of that consensus has eroded in recent years, there has been some drift in the primary purpose of schooling from a political perspective, but what it is at the level of an individual school is a vital conversation to build a coherent model.

Schools tackle this in different ways. A common exercise for a school is to construct a portrait of a graduate to try and understand what an individual entering the world in some number of years would need to be prepared to lead a choice-filled and civically engaged life.

For my part, I’d argue that the goal at a high level is producing students who are prepared to maximize their human potential, build their passions and lead choice-filled lives, participate civically in a vibrant democracy, contribute meaningfully to the world and the economy, and understand that people can see things differently—and that those differences merit respect rather than persecution. As such, I’d encourage schools to think through five domains as they build specifics around their central purpose and priorities:

1. Content knowledge. There’s a mountain of research on the importance of academic achievement and content knowledge across a range of disciplines. After students learn how to read, for example, evidence suggests that the ability to distill the meaning of new passages we confront isn’t so much a skill as something that is derivative of our knowledge base about the topic we’re reading. Building academic achievement to at least a baseline is important for future life success.

2. Skills. The purpose of knowledge isn’t necessarily for its own sake, but so that an individual can do useful things with that knowledge and apply it in ways that make a meaningful contribution. Critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and creativity are vital skills that employers report consistently as being more and more important for their employees. The ability to use these skills, of course, is dependent on having some domain knowledge. As in, I can think critically and communicate well about the future of education (some would agree with that statement anyway!), but if you dropped me in a coding job, for example, I would be lost and unable to apply any of these skills. At the same time, as the example of the Minerva Institute shows—and as is described in Building the Intentional University by Ben Nelson and Stephen Kosslyn, as well as in books like Critical Thinking by Jonathan Haber—these skills can be defined and individuals can learn how to do them in a repeatable and intentional process. As an individual masters these skills in a variety of domains with intentionality—not something the vast majority of schools focus on today—individuals can then more rapidly apply them in new domains as they master its knowledge and lexicon.

3. Habits of success. Also called character skills, social-emotional skills, and noncognitive skills (my least favorite), habits of success revolve around things like self-regulation, executive function skills, growth mindset, self-efficacy, agency, self-direction, and more. Education psychologist Brooke Stafford-Brizard developed a framework around 16 of these habits for Turnaround for Children, which Summit Public Schools has most notably put into action in its schools. These are the sorts of habits that help turn individuals into lifelong learners capable of navigating life’s twists and turns—arguably more important than ever as the half-life of knowledge and skills continues to shrink in the digital age of the knowledge economy. And they can best be modeled, taught, and learned in the context of students’ academic journeys—not as a set of add-on modules.

4. Real-world experiences and social capital. Connecting school to the real world—through projects, extracurricular activities, externships, internships, and more—is important so that students can build a deeper sense for the different ways in which they can contribute to the world, why what they are learning matters, why certain goals are worth attaining, and what resonates with them, among other meaningful opportunities. If the goal of school is not just to ensure students are prepared academically but also that they have access to good life opportunities and careers, then relationships will also be critical. As Julia Freeland Fisher argues in her book, Who You Know, in today’s world, schools need to engage in this activity. After building a baseline of academic knowledge and skills, who you know often trumps what you know in life. And teaching content knowledge, skills, and habits of success in the context of real-world experiences and the cultivation of social capital can be a critical way to ensure success for all students across all these domains.

5. Health and wellness. As schools come back from a challenging time thanks to the pandemic, students will have a variety of different challenges around their social and emotional wellbeing, as well as their more basic health and wellness. Although there’s an argument around whether schools should be involved in these areas, for students to learn effectively, if they aren’t in a sound state in their wellbeing or health, learning will be challenging at best—which means it will land in the domain of schools. On top of that, schools have always played some role in health and wellness—witness the long history of physical and health education in schools. But I’d argue that we’ve often distorted the purpose of these sorts of experiences and that we ought to return to a more foundational one around preparing students to live healthy lives—and being sure to see these domains as not separate from academic learning, but as critically integrated.

If one accepts these baseline ideas, the nuance of how they land in any given schooling community will differ—and the approach to implementing them should likely be personalized based on each student’s distinct needs and background. But as a starting point, taking these domains and building SMART goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound around each would be where I’d advocate starting.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently serves as Chairman of the Clayton Christensen Institute and works as a senior strategist at Guild Education. 

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Expanded Learning Time

Download the Brief


Mar 17, 2021 by Ed Trust and MDRC

A Strategy to Solve Unfinished Learning

As the nation continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and at-home learning continues, there will be a need to help students, especially the nation’s most vulnerable students, complete unfinished learning for weeks, months, and even years to come. Research shows expanded learning time (ELT) is one approach to helping historically underserved students catch up to meet high standards. ELT encompasses programs or strategies implemented to increase the amount of instruction and learning students experience. ELT strategies include afterschool, summer, and in-school programs.

District leaders considering ELT should follow the research and invest in evidence-based methods to support students to get back on track, while also fostering trusting relationships and providing an opportunity for a well-rounded education. Additional time can be beneficial to students, but only if that time is spent in ways that maximize teaching and learning. Overall, leaders will need to ensure that all school time is used especially well after months of unfinished instruction. ELT can only be effective if time during the school day is also used to efficiently and effectively accelerate learning.

In this brief, we focus on ELT programs that significantly increase the amount of new math and/or English language arts instruction delivered to students.

What Do We Know About What Works?

District and school leaders considering different ways to accelerate learning will have to make a number of challenging decisions to meet the needs of students experiencing unfinished learning. District leaders will need to make important policy decisions; school leaders will need to make decisions around staffing, partnering with community organizations or providers, scheduling, and curriculum. With each of these decisions, district and school leaders will have to balance what the evidence says is most effective with what is most feasible given their resource constraints and local context.

How Effective is Expanded Learning Time?

We looked at the research to help leaders navigate complicated decisions. The chart below shows how implementing different features of expanded learning impacts its effectiveness.

Critical Questions for Leaders

Which students benefit most?

Research shows that increasing the number of hours of instruction students receive during the school day (either during nonacademic class periods or by extending the official school day) can be effective for all age groups, types of students, and subject matter.

Below are critical questions to ask, based on available research, as schools and districts are building plans to completed unfinished learning.


How many students should be placed with an instructor during ELT?

Smaller classes are better for extended learning time. They give teachers the opportunity to provide individualized instruction, which can be particularly helpful for students experiencing unfinished learning.

What kind of training and support should schools provide for ELT instructors?

The most effective ELT programs provide all instructors with pre-service training, on-going training, and 1-to-1 coaching.

How should schools extend learning time?

Extra instruction can take place after school, during breaks, or during the summer. Instruction during any of these periods can be effective if the instruction is carried out by certified teachers and if the curriculum is both individualized and aligned with the content in the regular school day. Scheduling decisions should be made equitably to ensure students and families who already face the most injustices do not face additional barriers.

How much additional learning time should students receive?

Research indicates programs that offer 44 to 100 hours of additional instruction have an impact on student learning. Programs that provide more or less extended learning time are less effective in some cases; however, the effectiveness depends on the subject area.

What curricula should schools follow during ELT?

The most effective ELT curricula has content that is aligned with content from the regular school day, and lesson plans that include options for individualized instruction, allowing teachers to tailor instruction to both struggling and high-achieving students.

What is the most effective way to ensure students attend ELT?

Unsurprisingly, ELT’s effectiveness is directly tied to student attendance. Schools can expect the highest rates of attendance if instruction is provided during the school day, since the extra instruction is part of the regular school schedule.

How should schools staff ELT?

Students have greater increases in learning in ELT classrooms staffed by certified teachers because of these teachers’ classroom experience, knowledge of the school day curriculum, and familiarity with state standards.


Friday, October 11, 2019

Don’t just flip the classroom, flip the school day

Don’t just flip the classroom, flip the school day
By: Michael B. Horn

Oct 10, 2019
Flipping the classroom—in which students independently consume online lessons or lectures and then spend their time in the classroom focused on what we used to call homework—crashed on the scene eight years ago. But if Bob Harris, president of Edudexterity and currently working as the head of human resources for Pittsburgh’s school district, is to be believed, it isn’t enough.

It’s time to flip the high school day, he says, and he has plans for how to do it.

The basic idea is that almost all students would benefit from gaining a variety of real work experiences while in high school because they would gain a deeper appreciation for their potential directions in life; an understanding of their strengths, passions and purpose—a glaring gap in high schools that emerged in research for our new book Choosing College—and social capital in the form of mentors and potential professional connections outside of school and the circles of their family and friends, about which my colleague Julia Freeland Fisher has written extensively.

In Harris’s conception of the flipped school day, students would start their day at 9 a.m.—more in line with the research around when teenagers should wake up and start their days—by reporting to a workplace that could rotate every semester or year.

After working half a day, the students would then break for lunch and head to school to do their extracurricular activities and work on projects with their fellow students.

Finally, in the evenings, students would take their classes online from home when their parents are more likely to be at home—also more in line with research that suggests students tend to perform better in courses that meet later in the day. They wouldn’t have homework per se, as work would simply be woven into their online learning experiences.

One of Harris’s insights is that a big reason school exists as it does is that it plays an important custodial function in the lives of many families. For years, the only way to learn from a teacher was in a classroom.

But with the advent of online learning, students can theoretically learn anywhere, which means that you can change what you do during the times when it’s important to provide custodial care for students. All too often, students are already doing most of their learning late in the evening anyway. Rather than fight it, why not embrace it?

All too often, students are already doing most of their learning late in the evening anyway. Rather than fight it, why not embrace it?
Plus, far fewer teenagers—roughly 20%—hold a job today compared to a generation ago when 40% did. Flipping the school day would rectify that challenge and fill the morning time in a productive fashion.

Doing so would also equip students with an understanding of how their learning connected to their potential careers after school, which, in the ideal, would help them build motivation for when and what they learn online—which itself could be far more tailored for their learning needs, both in terms of the choice of courses and in terms of the learning pace and path within the courses.

It would also seem to present an interesting solution to the return of people’s nostalgia for career and technical education. And by flipping the school day for all students, it could potentially avoid the historical perils of tracking students into academic versus career pathways in high school.

Flipping the school day for all students could potentially avoid the historical perils of tracking students into academic versus career pathways in high school.

Finally, flipping the school day could also greatly bolster the counseling function in high schools. Today counselors operate at a 491-to-1 student-to-counselor ratio in high schools, which means there is little time for meaningful advice for students. But by placing students into jobs in the community, schools could potentially leverage a far wider swath of their community’s resources to help counsel and guide students into the choices they make in their lives.

If no high school wants to go all-in on the experiment, then they could try it as a pilot for a segment of their students. In so doing, they could also use it to create more capacity in their school by changing when and how the building is utilized and providing more shifts for students so that the schools would be open for far longer, act more as community centers, and students could experience smaller class sizes with teachers.

Given all we know, flipping the school day seems like a worthwhile experiment to me.

Michael B. Horn

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Google for Education Report on 8 Trends in Learning

Google for Education Report on 8 Trends in Learning

A new report from Google for Education concludes  “You cannot introduce tech successfully by disrupting the relationship between the teacher and the student. The introduction of tech will have to take place in the context of the fundamental human interaction in the classroom.”  This approach was emphasized by Karl Nelson of Illustrative Math, who I spent an hour with yesterday learning about their experience selling core and supplemental math instructional materials.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The challenges of changing to competency-based learning

As Michael Horn, recently wrote, "Fundamentally the question comes down to this: Do we want our education system to be a sorting system or a learning system?"

How well-intentioned education and business leaders, backed by wealthy foundations and a success story from faraway Alaska, sold state lawmakers on a largely untested theory of change
by KELLY FIELD April 19, 2019

Ragan Toppan, a junior at Deering High School, took part in a walkout last fall to protest a change in the school’s grading policy. Kelly Field, for The Hechinger Report

This past fall, Ragan Toppan, 16, walked out of her Algebra II class at Deering High School to protest her school’s recent switch to standards-based grading.

Toppan, a junior at the high school, was angry that the administration hadn’t sought student input about the change, and worried that a switch to a 1-4 grading system, with a 3 the highest possible grade on some assignments, would hurt her chances of getting into a good college. On her transcript, those 3s, which signify proficiency in a standard, would appear as 85s, or B’s.

“I shoot for A’s on all my work, but a lot of teachers don’t give you an option to go ‘above and beyond’ ”  

Her mother, a longtime English teacher at Deering, sees things a little differently. Kathryn Toppan switched to a 1-4 scale even before the administration required it, finding it “less arbitrary” than the traditional 1-100. “It’s easier to communicate to students where they’re at and what they need to do to improve,” she said.

She sympathizes with students, like her daughter, who have seen their high school careers disrupted by change. But she believes there is no other way. “Sometimes it doesn’t seem fair, but there’s sort of a greater good,” she said.

Seven years after the state passed a law that required Maine’s high schools to award diplomas on the basis of demonstrated “proficiency” in eight key areas, and nine months after the legislature repealed that mandate, the debate over proficiency-based diplomas continues to divide districts, teachers and families here, even as the concept spreads to other schools and states.

In a recent survey of the state’s superintendents conducted by the University of Southern Maine, roughly a quarter of respondents said they planned to stick with a proficiency-based diploma, even though the law no longer requires it. Thirty-eight percent said they would likely return to awarding diplomas based on the accumulation of credit hours. Another quarter preferred “hybrid” approaches, and 11 percent said it was too soon to speculate.

“No other state has embraced this model for all their school systems. We’re not ready for this.”

Earle McCormick, a former teacher and state senator

The only thing most everyone agrees on is this: The rollout of the 2012 law, LD 1422, was a disaster, plagued by insufficient funding and inadequate guidance from the top. While the state’s Department of Education cycled through commissioners (six in six years) superintendents struggled to figure out the law, largely on their own.

The result today is a patchwork of local policies, with pockets of proficiency-based grading surrounded by schools that have stuck with traditional methods of evaluating students — or reverted to them recently. Districts have spent thousands of dollars on consultants and software upgrades, and the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps that the law was supposed to help eliminate remain largely unchanged.

Related: Documenting Maine’s failure to implement proficiency-based education

Now, as a new governor and legislature grapple with these gaps, many parents and educators are left asking: How did Maine get into this mess?

To answer that question, The Hechinger Report combed through grant databases, legislative records and lobbying disclosures, looking for the forces and funding behind LD 1422. We spoke with more than two dozen lawmakers, foundation heads, business leaders and educators about the bill.

The story that emerged is a complicated one, spanning more than two decades and reaching across the country to a remote district in Alaska that became a model for Maine.

At its heart, though, it’s a familiar tale in American school reform — the story of how a small band of well-intentioned education and business leaders, backed by wealthy foundations and armed with optimism and a few early success stories, sold state lawmakers on a largely untested theory of change.

Imported from Alaska

Proficiency-based education is a wonky term, but in essence it means that students master certain skills before they move up a grade or graduate. The amount of time they’ve spent in the classroom (“seat time”) doesn’t matter, nor does the number of credits they’ve accumulated.

proficiency based learning

Deering High School, one of the largest in the state of Maine, is in the midst of a controversial transition to proficiency-based diplomas. Kelly Field, for The Hechinger Report

In theory, proficiency-based models let students learn at their own pace, speeding up if they grasp a concept quickly, and getting extra help if they struggle. In practice, though, it can take many different forms, including independent study, learning communities and online programs. It doesn’t always include changes to grading — and indeed, Maine’s law didn’t require any.

To supporters like former state senator Brian Langley, a longtime culinary arts instructor and the sponsor of the now-repealed LD 1422, proficiency-based diplomas are a way to ensure that all kids graduate with the skills they’ll need to succeed in a changing economy.

“It’s about equity,” he said. The law “was bringing a voice to the kids who don’t have helicopter parents, so when they left high school, their diplomas would mean something.”

Maine’s march toward a proficiency-law began in 1997, with the adoption of the Maine Learning Results, which set statewide standards in eight content areas. It accelerated a couple of years later, when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation began pouring millions of dollars into high school reform and the creation of small schools. (The Gates Foundation is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

In 2000, Tom Vander Ark, the first executive director of Gates’ education program, heard about Chugach, a district in Alaska that had seen dramatic gains in test scores after switching to a proficiency-based model, and he decided to visit.

There, in tiny schools reachable only by plane, Vander Ark spoke with students who “could tell you exactly what they were learning, why it was important, and what they had to do to move to the next level in each subject,” he said in an interview. Each student had a little bar chart on their desk that tracked their progress toward mastery in each standard.

“I was fascinated by it,” he said. “I had never seen kids so in charge of their learning.”

Related: What if personalized learning was less about me and more about us?

When he returned to Seattle, Vander Ark gave the Alaska Council of School Administrators $5 million to bring the Chugach district’s model to six other Alaska districts.

The next year, Chugach, with its 214 students spread across 22,000 square miles of glaciers, mountains, islands and wilderness, won the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality award. The federal award brought national attention to the district, which created a nonprofit, the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, to take its approach nationwide. The group’s acronym, RISC, was deliberate, according to a book by its creators, “Delivering on the Promise.” Schools and districts that adopted the model “would take risks in transitioning to a system fundamentally distinct from the one that was deeply ingrained in U.S. culture.”

In 2003, the Gates Foundation gave RISC $5.8 million to train additional Alaska school districts and to create a research and development program.

“The mission was to hit the tipping point to transform the education system,” said Richard DeLorenzo, the former superintendent who created RISC. “That was my vision.”

$13 million in outside philanthropic funding supported two Maine districts’ efforts to implement proficiency-based education

The first converts were Adams County School District 50, in the Denver suburbs, and the Lindsay Unified School District, in California, he recalls. Like the Chugach district, they had high percentages of low-income students, though they were much larger districts than Chugach, with more than 10,000 and 4,000 students, respectively.

Meanwhile, in Maine, a handful of districts were experimenting with similar methods. Among them were RSU 2, a far-flung district in central Maine which includes the towns of Hallowell and Monmouth; MSAD 15, a district midway between Portland and Lewiston; and RSU 20, which includes the small coastal community of Searsport. Searsport had started transitioning to a standards-based diploma in 2002, after receiving a share of a $10-million school reform grant that Gates had made to the Sen. George J. Mitchell Scholarship Research Institute, an organization that gives out scholarships to Maine students.

In 2007, Maine’s then-commissioner, Susan Gendron, invited DeLorenzo to speak at a summer conference for superintendents in Bar Harbor. At the end of the conference, she took a survey: 80 percent of attendees said they supported the RISC philosophy, but only a quarter said they were ready to make the leap, she said in an interview.

To encourage them along, the state offered schools $50,000 grants to subsidize RISC training, Gendron recalled. DeLorenzo screened the candidates, assessing their capacity for change, and six districts were approved, among them the three districts mentioned above that had already begun experimenting with the model.

When the state withdrew its financial support for the training a year and a half in, citing budget shortfalls, the districts formed a consortium to pool their resources: The Maine Cohort for Customized Learning. One of the first things the new nonprofit did was hire Beatrice McGarvey, from Marzano Research, a consulting organization that offers professional development to schools across the country, to craft a common curriculum, said Linda Laughlin, now the Maine group’s executive director.

At least one of the early pioneers, RSU 18, which includes the small town of Oakland, has since backed away from a standards-based diploma. But one district has been steadfast in its commitment, staying the course through three superintendents: RSU 2.

A local success story

In a math classroom inside Monmouth Academy in the RSU 2 district, 20 students, ranging from freshmen to seniors, sat in clusters of four, working independently on small dry erase boards. Some were still studying geometry, others had advanced to Algebra II. One group was just starting on probability.

proficiency based learning

Elizabeth Ross, a math teacher at Monmouth Academy, explains a chart that shows which standards students have met. Kelly Field, for The Hechinger Report

Elizabeth Ross, a ninth-year teacher in the district, buzzed between them, stopping to show two juniors, Violette Beaulieu and Hannah Levesque, how a parabola can dip from positive to negative.

When they understood the concept, Ross moved on, giving another group a lesson in operations with square roots. Then she moved on again.

After an hour of shuttling between students, Ross was sweaty and flushed, the carton of yogurt on her desk only half eaten. It’s hard work differentiating curriculum for so many students, but Ross believes it’s worth it.

“I feel like they learn more,” she said. “When I give them a test, they have to know all of it” to earn a 3 and be deemed proficient. “Not just 70 percent.”

On the wall, there was a chart with stickers showing which standards students had met. Shading in the boxes indicated a higher level of competence — half-shaded was a 3.5 and fully shaded was a 4. The students had requested the shading, to show more nuance in the scores, Ross said.

Levesque, who wants to go to either St. Joseph’s or Thomas College and become a realtor, strives for all 4s, often requesting extra work to get to that level. But Beaulieu, who hopes to attend the University of Maine Farmington and become a preschool teacher, said she’s content with a “solid 3.”

Both said they like the individualized instruction that they get from teachers like Ross, and appreciate the opportunity to retake exams if they have a bad day. They worry, though, how they’ll fare in college, where professors are less forgiving, and there’s thousands of dollars in tuition at stake.

“Here, if I get something wrong, I’ll be able to go back and fix it. In college, you can’t,” said Beaulieu. “That kind of freaks me out.”

RSU 2 is often held up as a standards-based success story. Nearly a decade in, the culture of competence is deeply ingrained in the district; most of today’s high schoolers have never experienced anything different.

Getting to this point wasn’t easy, though. When Hallowell tried to extend proficiency-based education to its high school in 2008, parents put up a fight, saying the change would make it harder for their children to compete for scholarships and admission to selective schools, according to a case study published by the state Department of Education.

The state ramps up

Meanwhile, the momentum — and the spending — for reform was continuing to build. In 2009, Gates gave half a million to the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which describes itself as New England’s largest education-focused philanthropy, to lead a four-state effort to remake the region’s schools. (Nellie Mae is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.) Nellie Mae passed on the money to the Portland-based Great Schools Partnership, which used it to coordinate The New England Secondary School Consortium, a coalition advocating for proficiency-based diplomas, among other things.

The following year, Gates gave Nellie Mae an additional $1.75 million to identify and fund “proficiency-based pathways.” Some of that money trickled down to MSAD 15 and the Casco Bay High School for Expeditionary Learning, in Portland, which had been created five years earlier using a grant from The Gates Foundation. At Casco Bay, the money would be used to create a “roadmap” for other districts and Portland’s two other high schools to follow, according to a 2012 report on the initiative.

Nellie Mae, which had $430 million in assets at the end of 2009, began investing its own money in Maine, too. In 2010, it gave $200,000 each to Portland and two other districts to develop plans for “district level system change” focused on “student-centered approaches,” including proficiency-based education.

At the end of the following year, it awarded organizations in Portland and Sanford nearly $9 million to implement their plans. To build public support for the changes, the foundation also gave smaller grants to youth and immigrant advocacy groups in the districts.

The foundation ultimately gave a combined $13 million to the two districts, with roughly two-thirds of it going to Portland, according to a Nellie Mae spokesperson.

In its application for its 2011 grant, Portland pledged to move the entire district to a proficiency-based diploma. When the grants were announced, Nicholas Donohue, the foundation’s president, said the districts were chosen because they were already “most aligned with our theory of change.”

But some Portland parents were wary of the award. Anna Collins, a Portland mother and attorney, said she saw the grants as an attempt to build support for LD 1422, which had just been approved by the state legislature’s education committee and would soon be debated by the whole legislature.

“They can say ‘We’ve got some of the biggest districts in the state on board, you have to pass this,’” she told the Bangor Daily News at the time.

Nellie Mae was supporting the proposed law. A few months before it made the grants to Portland and Sanford, the foundation gave the first of three grants to the Maine Department of Education to create an online Center for Best Practice, with case studies of districts that had embraced proficiency-based learning.

That same month, it awarded $50,000 to the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education, a business group now part of Educate Maine, to support its “political/legislative work.” The coalition, which had drafted an omnibus education reform bill that was ultimately whittled down to LD 1422, used the funds to host a retreat for members of the education committee shortly before the legislature voted on the bill. The lawmakers visited a proficiency-based school in Oakland and attended a policy forum in Freeport.

Just before the vote on LD 1422 in early April 2012, Educate Maine and Great Schools Partnership circulated a letter to committee members with the signatures of nearly 50 principals and superintendents who supported the bill.

Ed Cervone, the executive director of Educate Maine, said LD 1422 was an attempt to bring accountability to the Maine Learning Results, which the state had passed 15 years earlier, but never adequately enforced.

“This wasn’t some radical new pathway,” he said. “We were looking at finishing the pathway put off by governors prior.”

Guinea Pigs

When the legislature debated the bill, lawmakers who represented communities in RSU 2 spoke against it, citing complaints they’d received from parents and students in their district. They urged lawmakers to slow down and let districts decide whether to implement proficiency-based diplomas on their own.

“No other state has embraced this model for all their school systems,” warned Sen. Earle McCormick, a former teacher who represented part of RSU 2. “We’re not ready for this.”

The heavy involvement of unelected, out-of-state foundations in advancing proficiency-based diplomas stoked suspicion and resentment among some Maine parents and teachers. They created a Facebook Group called “Mainers Concerned About Proficiency Based Learning,” where they shared lobbying reports, grant details and consulting contracts, and swapped horror stories and conspiracy theories. The group remains active today, with 1,500 members.

“Have you found a grassroots movement pushing for this?”

Ericka Lee-Winship, a teacher at Portland High School

“We are guinea pigs for a new, experimental method of teaching and learning that has been designed to benefit content providers rather than students,” wrote Emily Talmage, a fourth-grade teacher in Lewiston in a 2015 post detailing spending by Nellie Mae.

That view is shared by policymakers like Rep. Heidi Sampson, who led the push to overturn the law. In an interview, she said the law was created to “pad the wallets” of consultants like Great Schools Partnership, which offers coaching to districts.

Great Schools Partnership, which charges schools and districts between $24,000 and $84,000 for its services (depending on the number of coaching days), did see an uptick in contracts after the mandate passed, from 18 to 25, and a decline back to 18 after the law was repealed, according to data provide by Ian Bassingthwaighte, a spokesman. It also won a $200,000 contract from the state to create free standards-based tools for schools. But the law was hardly a bonanza for the nonprofit, and Bassingthwaighte said it’s not in it for the money.

“We are former teachers, principals and superintendents who are dedicated to our mission of ensuring high quality learning for each student,” he said.

(Great Schools has received continued support from Nellie Mae; the foundation gave it several million dollars to administer the New England Secondary School Consortium and to run a program aimed at building “public understanding and demand” for reform across the region, including in three Maine communities.)

Charlie Toulmin, Nellie Mae’s policy director, insists his foundation wasn’t the driving force behind the law.

“They were already walking down this path, and they and us sort of found a match in our interests,” he said.

Staying the course in Portland

Portland’s district leadership has said it plans “to stay the course with its transition to a proficiency-based diploma,” regardless of changes in the law.

proficiency based learning

The entrance to Portland’s Deering High School, the most diverse high school north of Boston. Nearly half the enrollees are students of color. Kelly Field, for The Hechinger Report

In the city’s two traditional high schools — Deering and Portland High School — classes look, and sound, much as they did prior to 2012.. The only signs that things have changed are posters that hang in some classrooms, enumerating the standards and proficiency levels.

Most of the ongoing change is happening behind the scenes, in departmental meetings where teachers hash out graduation requirements, and in online gradebooks, where teachers spend hours assigning standards to assignments, and rating students on levels of proficiency. It’s a ton of data entry, but none of it has appeared on students’ report cards, which still include traditional numerical grades.

That frustrates teachers like Ericka Lee-Winship, who would “much rather spend time planning exciting lessons than sitting at my computer clicking buttons.”

Lee-Winship, who has taught social studies at Portland High School for 21 years, thinks the Great Schools Partnership coaches her school has hired are smart and mean well, but are out of touch with the realities of the profession.

“They want teachers to think big picture, but every day I’m expected to manage the details,” she said. “When I go home, I have a huge bag of homework to grade. I’m not sitting around pondering the big picture questions.”

She believes the state’s shift to proficiency-based diplomas was driven “100 percent” by foundations and interest groups.

“Have you found a grassroots movement pushing for this?” she asked.

Beth Arsenault, who has taught in Portland High School since 1996, has practiced many of the habits of proficiency-based learning for years — letting students retake tests and keeping her grade book open, for example. In her alternative education classes for at-risk students, the mantra is “you’re not passing yet.”

So she’s not philosophically opposed to proficiency-based education; she just doesn’t like it being imposed on teachers by outsiders. And, like Lee-Winship, she finds the data entry meaningless.

“Trust me, professionally, that I’m teaching to the standard,” she said.

With neighboring districts backing away from proficiency-based diplomas — including those centered in Scarborough and South Portland — many teachers here hope theirs will be the next to fall.

Ragan Toppan, now 17, is among the students who do, too. She was pleased in January when Deering took a small step backward, giving teachers the option of grading using either a 1-4 or 60-100 scale. But the compromise has the potential to complicate transcripts, and thus the college application process, for students like her: “We can’t forget that kids are planning for their futures. This may be a test run for the administration, but these are real lives, real students.”

“I shoot for A’s on all my work, but a lot of teachers don’t give you an option to go ‘above and beyond.’ An 85 is not going to cut it for college.”

Ragan Toppan, a junior at Deering High School

Her mom, Kathryn, remains committed to the 1-4 grading system. But even she says it would be “premature” to switch to a proficiency-based diploma before ironing out the kinks around remediation and grading.

In the meantime, Deering’s teachers have agreed to award up to a 4 on all assignments that use the 1-4 scale, according to Principal Gregg Palmer. He said he didn’t think many teachers limited students to 3s before, but “I can’t say it never happened.”

And what about the Alaska-based group that brought its model to Maine? DeLorenzo, who created RISC, lost his passion for the business, and was running a fly-fishing business when he got a call from a Russian friend who asked him to come create schools there. They’re up to five now. He believes the “hierarchal, compliance-driven culture” of Russia is more conducive to system change than the U.S.’s locally controlled one. “I never had the leverage to flip American schools, to get CEOs behind me. That’s why I’m in Russia,” he said.

RISC, meantime, was acquired by Marzano Research and is no longer offering trainings. Marzano, which helped Maine’s pioneers in proficiency develop their curriculum, is creating a series of proficiency-based student “academies” with help from RSU 2 superintendent Bill Zima, who is leaving at the end of the school year to join the company. So far, none of the academies are in Maine.

Chugach has stuck with its proficiency-based diploma, but test scores have dropped, from the top quartile of the state to roughly the middle, according to current superintendent Mike Hanley. Nearly all of the schools in Alaska that copied its model have since abandoned it. Bob Crumley, the superintendent who put it in place, thinks they got complacent.

“Over time, it didn’t seem as urgent,” he said. “The initial adrenalin and drive kind of waned.”

Nellie Mae, meanwhile, is re-thinking its grant-making strategy, acknowledging that some of its investments in “student-centered learning” haven’t had as big an impact on low-income students and communities of color as the foundation had hoped. Going forward, the foundation will “put much more attention on racial equity” and be more open to grant proposals that don’t involve student-centered practices, Nellie Mae’s Toulmin said.

In RSU 2, there’s less pushback to proficiency than their used to be. But some parents and teachers still worry about the lack of consequences for slacking. Deadlines here are flexible, and students know they can retake tests if they don’t feel like studying one night.

“There’s no motivation because there’s no deadlines,” said Jennifer Heidrich, the mother of a Monmouth middle schooler who teaches in another district. “His attitude is he shouldn’t have to do work outside school. Coming from a teacher’s kid — you can imagine the fights we get into.”

School leaders acknowledge this challenge, and have begun requiring students to rate their “habits of work,” each Friday. Teachers review the scores and can change them if they disagree. If a student’s “habits of work” are poor, they can lose junior or senior privileges. But there are still no consequences for underclassmen, and the score doesn’t affect a student’s grade.

“It doesn’t have teeth,” said Christine Arsenault, a longtime English teacher and supporter of proficiency-based learning. “That’s the biggest downfall.”