Andrew Jones & Gabe Hamilton: Proficiency-based learning is best practice

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Andrew Jones, who is the president of the Vermont Curriculum Leaders Association, and Gabe Hamilton, a VTCLA member.

Some individuals argue that there is no research that supports proficiency-based learning. That is not exactly true. Proficiency-based learning is relatively new to the education scene, but the practices that make up proficiency-based learning are not new at all. More than that, these individual practices are backed up by decades of literature and empirical research. This approach to education is not unfounded nor an “experiment” as some would like to say. When we “look under the hood” of proficiency-based learning, we can see a collection of best practices that are hard to argue against.  

The basic tenets that make up a proficiency-based learning system are:

  • Clear and transparent learning expectations (often called learning targets) connected to standards are clearly communicated; what a student is going to learn is no secret.
  • Feedback is used frequently to report growth and achievement, as well as inform instruction; teachers know their learners and differentiate and personalize learning experiences; learners know where they stand and what they need to do to grow.
  • Valid and reliable assessment, grading, and reporting practices that are tied to learning expectations favor more recent evidence of learning and are not conflated with behaviors or other work habits.
  • Transferable skills (in addition to content) are included as crucial elements of a student’s education and outcomes.

Clear and transparent learning expectations are central to student success. When students know the criteria for success and the destination for their learning, research shows they are more successful. Without specific learning targets, students are “flying blind,” with no sense of where they are at in their learning. Implementation of proficiency-based learning has dramatically improved the clarity and transparency of expectations for students.

Feedback has been identified as one of the most powerful teaching strategies available to improve student achievement. Providing timely and actionable feedback has dramatic impacts on student motivation and self-efficacy. When feedback is tied directly to specific learning targets through a learning scale, students know where they are in relation to the learning target and what they need to do to meet proficiency. Simply put, clear and frequent feedback improves student growth and achievement. Personalization of learning with an emphasis on feedback is growing within our proficiency-based learning systems.

Measuring student learning through assessments is a mainstay in classrooms at most grade levels. Historically, classroom grades have been more of a “hodgepodge” of idiosyncratic elements, rather than an accurate representation of student achievement. Grading practices have varied considerably across schools, and even among teachers within the same school. Additionally, conventional grading practices have created an obsession with points and grades, diverting attention away from learning.  Grades have been used as a currency and a tool for compliance, rather than an undiluted measure of student proficiency against identified criteria. Increasingly valid and reliable grading and assessment practices are emerging through the work in our proficiency-based learning systems, creating a higher level of consistency.

Many argue that we should maintain the status quo because the traditional system works just fine. Although the traditional system may work for some, it is abundantly clear that there are huge disparities and issues around college and career readiness. Numerous surveys have revealed a disturbing trend: College educators and employers agree that students are not equipped with the foundational skills and work habits they need to be successful in post-secondary education or the workplace. These skills, often referred to as transferable skills, like communication, problem solving, self-direction and collaboration need to be explicitly taught in our schools. Furthermore, according to ACT’s annual Condition of College and Career Readiness where 1.8 million or 52% of graduating seniors were tested, only 37% meet three of the four college and career readiness benchmarks.  Additionally, according to a 2016 report by the Center for American Progress upwards of 60% of students require some sort of remediation in their first year of college, costing students and families over $1.3 billion each year. In Vermont, these skills are now embedded in proficiency-based graduation requirements and inform K-12 curriculum. 

Some individuals have pointed to Maine as an example of a failed attempt to implement proficiency-based learning. Although it may be true that, legislatively speaking, a change of course occurred, what is clear from firsthand visits and interviews is that many of the schools that engaged in the work around proficiency-based learning continue that work regardless of the politics at the state level. Schools around the state continue proficiency-based learning through best practices with transferable skills education, frequent feedback, and instruction and assessment connected to clear learning expectations.  Even though the law was repealed in Maine, many schools have not missed a beat with their implementation of proficiency-based learning practices. The truth is that a vast majority of schools in Maine were making solid progress with proficiency-based learning. Realistically, this sort of education reform takes time and we owe it to our schools and communities in Vermont to maintain the support of time and guidance a well-intentioned policy can provide.

The world is changing rapidly. Teachers are no longer mere keepers of knowledge, filling students heads with facts. The three “R’s” of reading, writing, and arithmetic are insufficient for student success in college, career, and citizenship. Access to jobs that pay a livable wage require a wide variety of transferable skills, not just rote memorization of events, multiplication tables, and other conventional proxies of student learning. Teaching must be informed by empirical research and best practices, not what worked for some in the past.  


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