Leigh Pelletier: Proficiency based learning is making students less proficient

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Leigh Pelletier a former member of the Stowe School Board and former director for the Lamoille South Supervisory Union School board and the Lamoille South Unified Union board.

Over the last couple years, all three groups with oversight over public school education — the State Board of Education, the House Education Committee, and the Senate Education Committee — have held hearings about proficiency based learning. The amount of people and hours involved in these hearings are plentiful, yet testimony will never provide a full picture.

Reviewing facts and data will always provide clearer answers and be more objective than any hearings with a select group of witnesses. Yet, the Agency of Education  has not provided complete data so those with oversight are stuck relying on the conjecture of individuals rather than receiving answers to basic questions:

What does the data show about student performance?

Vermont is the only SBAC testing state in the nation that has not released its 2019 testing results. Why is that? This data is needed to make further determinations on current student performance, and it is critical to see if student performance is continuing to decline. 

Looking at SBAC data from 2016-2018 (the AOE stated that 2016 is the baseline year), state performance has decreased or stayed stagnant for all grades (Grades 3-8 and 11). There isn’t one grade that shows an increase in the percentage of students who are proficient in either English or math. This negative dip in performance mirrors the fourth and eighth grade NAEP results over the same timeframe. The goal of PBL is to increase proficiency, yet we have been decreasing the percentage of our students who are proficient.

How much is this costing us?

No one knows how much this proficiency based learning initiative has cost the state. Exactly how many tens or hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent both at the state and local levels on this initiative? How much new personnel has been added, and how many hours have teachers and staff diverted from teaching to implementing PBL in the classroom? All testimony in the hearings is irrelevant if we have no idea what the price of this is. We can all agree something is a great idea, but at some cost we will also agree it’s not worth the investment.

What does the data show about teacher perspective?

At the hearings of the State Board of Education, and Senate and House Education committees, a few teachers were selected to testify in an attempt to get the teacher perspective. It’s always possible to find a few to talk in favor of or against any proposal, but does that really paint a full picture? In 2019, the Vermont National Educators Association conducted a survey that showed over 72% of teachers found PBL to be demotivating to students, 47% found content knowledge to be decreasing, and 81% did not see any increase in equity. The testimony of any individual teacher cannot change those findings. Many teachers fear for their jobs if they speak out against PBL so the survey provided them with the opportunity to honestly and safely share their perspective — the VT NEA survey must be seen as the definitive voice on PBL of the approximately 7,000 educators in our state.

Are other PBL states seeing the same declines in student performance? 

Oh, wait, there are no other states that dove into PBL like Vermont. Neither the AOE nor the BOE has been forthright and admitted that Vermont is “leading the way” on PBL nationally and is the only state mandating PBL graduation. The public has been told that PBL is occurring throughout the nation, a statement that is completely misleading. Yes, there are individual schools that are incorporating PBL, states that are allowing and running PBL pilots, and New Hampshire has implemented certain PBL requirements. However, the two other states that planned to have PBL graduation mandates, Maine and Oregon, legally repealed the mandate prior to the implementation date. To be clear, there is no state that has embraced PBL like we have.

The closest PBL comparison is New Zealand, a country that adopted PBL back in 2007. Both Vermont and New Zealand have been lauded as “leading the way” on PBL. Since adoption of PBL, New Zealand’s student performance on the global level has been on a steady decline, beginning with its 2009 PISA results and continuing through its 2018 PISA test results. In fact, the “global education report showed an overall decline in New Zealand’s level of reading, mathematics and science since 2009 – equating a loss of about 3/4 of a year’s worth of a student’s schooling against 2009 results.” New Zealand’s declines in student performance over the past decade mirrors our declines.

If New Zealand’s long-term use of PBL has diminished student proficiency, why are we expecting a different outcome in Vermont?

In 2018, New Zealand hit new lows across the board for its PISA Science, Math, and English tests. A great harm was done to the New Zealand students who had to suffer through the PBL quagmire for 13 years, perhaps because the country had invested so much time and money that it kept wanting to give it a chance. The “sunk cost fallacy,” an economics concept, shows that those engaged in a project will continue to argue for it and commit more resources, even when the evidence clearly shows it isn’t working. We must rely on data rather than the voices of those administrators who are responsible for implementing PBL in our state.

We must protect our students. The implementation of PBL has been a public policy failure for our state. It’s time to take personal responsibility and take action to do right by our students.

VTDigger serves a vital role in delivering news that changes the terms of many debates. Digger reporters engage us, enlighten us and offer "real eye openers" about issues of the day.

Crea Lintilhac, VJT Board Member


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