Thursday, October 24, 2019

Standards-Based Learning: Time to embrace our flawed realities.

So, by 2020, according to state legislation, all high schools in our state of Vermont are supposed to use proficiencies--rather than seat time and carnegie units--to graduate our students. Some schools cheered this legislation (Act 77) when it was passed in 2013, along with the ensuing Education Quality Standards that provided guidelines about Proficiency-Based Learning (PBL), as an acknowledgment of what we had already been doing; some schools embraced the challenges and the collaboration that would surely ensue; and some schools dragged their feet and hoped it would all go away before the end of the decade. Well, it didn’t go away. And now we are in the 2019/2020 school year, which means “stuff” just got real for a lot of schools and communities. 

As Proficiency-Based Learning Coordinators, we spend much of our time living in the ideal and guiding teachers and schools towards an aspirational version of SBL. But the reality is that this aspirational version is not currently within reach for most teachers and schools--for very legitimate reasons. We can read all the great books, go to inspirational conferences, and join social media professional learning communities that show us what it could look like, that explain ideal versions of SBL, that support these ideals with indisputable research about the brain and learning; but in our actual classrooms, our actual schools, our actual communities, this ideal may not only be out of reach, but leaping for it may do more damage than good. An ideal exists to provide a destination to move towards, to drive progress--if we try to leap over that progress to grab hold of perfection, do we risk losing it all? Maybe it’s time to embrace the process and be honest about the compromises that might be necessary to keep moving forward.

For a long time now, we’ve been embarrassed by compromise. We so strongly believe in what could be real for Standards-Based Learning (SBL) that we saw anything less than the ideal as failure. That has led to a lot of sugar-coating, rationalizing, and frustration over the past five years, rather than what we should have been doing. We should have been singing our compromises loudly and proudly. We should have been owning each step towards the ideal. We should have been more open about sharing the flawed realities as well as the aspirations.

So here we go...the naked truth:

We convert scores to letter grades. We tell students that learning is about taking risks and making mistakes and not about judgement. We tell them that their learning can’t be summed up in a single symbol, that averaging learning is wrong. But we calculate an ongoing composite score--which is an average of the most recent summative scores for each learning target--and every 9 weeks, we convert this composite score to a letter grade. Yup. We do that. We know it’s not ideal. We know that communicating learning with a single summary score or grade is misleading at best and inaccurate at worst. But years ago, we chose not to fight that fight. A series of very wise leaders knew that the only way we were going to have the space to shift how we teach and learn in our classrooms was to leave the letter grades alone. If we could tell students and parents that all of the changes we were making were still going to result in letter grades and GPAs, then they would give us the freedom to make those changes. We were able to promise them that we would not mess with their transcripts, and by doing this, we bought the time to earn their trust. And even though we still have letter grades, we now have a much better idea of where those letter grades come from and how to help students improve them. We had to compromise the ideal in order to get closer to it, and in doing so, our grades have more integrity than they used to have.

We have learning targets and scales that don’t support what we say about learning targets and scales. CVU’s approach is to use transferable skill learning targets (rather than content-based) and to use complexity scales (rather than frequency or effectiveness scales). We have clear faculty scales that describe these, and we widely share our targets and scales outside of our school. But if you were to search our target bank and were to ask teachers to see their course scales, you would see quite a few targets that don’t seem to fit our model and some scales that have nothing to do with increasing complexity. But the reality is that those same teachers who still have one or two content targets have worked ridiculously hard over the past 5 years to develop incredibly effective skill targets as well. And the teachers who still have frequency scales (sometimes, mostly, always), are starting to ask incredible questions about differentiation and how they might revise their scales to be more effective for instruction. Had we policed these more strictly (as we wanted to do!), we may have lost some really excellent teachers who just needed to follow their own path and experience success through changes they chose to make. We had to compromise the ideal in order to get closer to it, and by doing so, teachers felt ownership in the changes they made.

We’re not determining student graduation based on proficiencies. That’s right. We still have credits. We still have course requirements. Students still have to pass their classes, and they are eligible for graduation in a very similar way as they always have been. What’s different--what’s better--is that now their course grades, which determine their credits, are based on our learning scales; they are based on students showing proficiency in clear, agreed-upon targets that provide evidence of our graduation standards. So now when a student gets credit for a class, they also have evidence of proficiency in multiple skills, using the content of the course. Is this what the state had in mind when they said that students will graduate based on proficiencies? Maybe not ideally. Are they okay with it? Absolutely. Is this what we believe is the ideal way to graduate students? Probably not. But we’re not ready to completely toss out existing systems until we have something better. We’re getting closer and closer. Within five years, school at CVU may look significantly different, and graduation will be likely be determined based on evidence that students demonstrate in the standards we believe are essential for success. But for now, we had to compromise the ideal in order to get closer to it.

Despite all these compromises and all of this messiness, there is no doubt that we are doing better for our students than we were before we started this transition. None. Our implementation was rocky and
scary and messy and spectacularly difficult (And honestly, even though we are now officially standards-based, things are still rocky and scary and messy and spectacularly difficult.), but each decision we made and each revision we made to a previous decision led us closer to where we are now, which is better than where we were before. Students understand their strengths and challenges better than they ever have; in most classes, they say they know how they are going to do on their summatives before they take them, which has reduced test anxiety. Teachers are so much clearer about their goals for students and more intentional about their instructional choices; most say that they understand their students’ strengths and challenges so much better and know how to respond to these. Families have a much better understanding of their children as learners; most say that they can have richer conversations with their kids about learning, not just about grades. For the first time ever, we have agreed upon course curriculum documents for every class, common learning targets for courses, and common grading agreements. These practices continue to improve the integrity and rigor of our academic program, and allow a solid foundation for our ongoing efforts to personalize learning. We have shared understandings about learning, shared visions for the future of the school, and shared language to talk about both the successes and challenges of the work we’re doing to get things right for students. In other words, there are some pretty amazing things happening to learning in our district, even though we are far from the ideal.

Maybe part of the implementation problem we are having in our state right now is an honorable, but misguided attempt to get SBL right, to leap for the ideal. We all want what’s best for students, best for learning; and when we understand how the brain learns and take into account the world we’re now preparing our students to live in, it’s tough to argue that our conventional teaching and grading systems are effective. So when the state said, “Let’s do it!” schools said okay, because it’s the right thing to do. But the trouble is, in our attempt to get the right thing right, we may have forgotten two huge truths:

First, there is no one “right” way to do SBL. There is no prescribed recipe for success or set of guidelines that will work in every school. What will be easy in one community could be a deal-breaker in another. And what an effective proficiency-based system looks like will vary from school to school and county to county as well. While there are some foundational elements that will be the same, the systems and structures that need to be in place to ensure the success of these elements may be as different as the communities they are in. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all share our ways; in fact, I think that’s something we need to do a lot more of, not only here in Vermont, but everywhere. The more we each share our successes, our choices, our pitfalls, and our compromises, the more likely we all are to be able to not only survive the implementation, but to come out feeling strong and supported.

Second, we aren’t going to get it right. And this is a tough one to admit, even though it should be obvious. We’ve never gotten it right in education. Sure, school has always worked for some students, but it has always not worked for a lot of students as well. From the classroom level to the school level to the state level to the national level, we have never had an educational system that has gotten it right, so why do we all of a sudden hold ourselves to a completely new standard?

Maybe our goal shouldn’t be to get SBL right. It should be to get it right-er. And sometimes getting it right-er means compromising the ideal. That doesn’t mean, however, that the ideal is ridiculous and out of touch and a big fat lie that researchers or authors or politicians or administrators came up with to make us all feel bad about our practices. The ideal is built on what we know about learning and the brain and development and pedagogy--it’s built on science that’s been around for longer than we have. It’s what we would create if we were given the gift of starting over from scratch. It’s what we feel every once in a while, in that magical moment in that magical class in that magical school, that reminds us that it is possible and keeps us reaching for more. That’s why we need the ideal, the aspirational. It’s why we need to read the books and go to the conferences and get inspired by stories of teachers, classrooms, schools that are doing it (in some form), that are close, or closer to getting it right than we are. But that’s also why we need to embrace our compromises, to not be ashamed of sometimes doing a right-er thing if it will get us closer to achieving an even right-er thing. Maybe that’s what the ideal actually’s the constant push to get it right-er for our students.

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