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.

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Tim Vincent

Here are two facts:
Vermont is the fourth highest state in spending per student.
Test results are consistently mediocre compared to other states.

Every 5 or 6 years, it seems, another new fad comes out of some School of Education.
It is leaped on by schools and state Education Depts. angling for more money.
No one ever comes up with even rudimentary metrics about the effects of the latest fad.
Budgets (and bureaucracies) go up, consultants and text book publishers make more money…and all is well in the “ed biz.”

Jay Eshelman

Why does the failure of the public education monopoly and its methodology always digress into the pot calling the kettle black? PBL is yet another in a long line of education reforms intended to convince taxpayers, parents and their children that the monopoly’s continued failures are being addressed.

But failures and increased costs have continued now for decades. Are these failures contrived, designed to justify never ending and ever more expensive education reforms by a monopoly with no other alternatives?

Yes, “We must protect our students”. But why are parents never included in the decision-making process? Why does the monopoly continue to stifle an education marketplace in which all of these various pedagogies compete with demonstrated successes, instead of creating costly never-ending reforms?

Perhaps student success isn’t the goal of the education monopoly. Failure, and never-ending reform in a restricted market, guaranties its economic growth.

Diana Osborn

The problem arises when one tries to quantify learning outcomes and then present those data appropriately. Applying old methods of analysis to a brand new system doesn’t work in defending the new approach or in supporting the old one. It’s the proverbial “comparing apples to oranges.” To fairly and objectively judge a new model, as a failure or a success, the state must develop and share an appropriate reporting mechanism. In other words, report on the outcome of PBL in a way more akin to PBL rather than a traditional report card or graph. All the n/a blanks above illustrate this perfectly.

Robert Gifford

The only way to fix this is to get rid of the property tax rebate. This would cause 75% of Vermonters to fully pay their property taxes. Voter turnout is dismal because why vote on an issue that doesn’t really effect your check book. Why not vote for increases that you dont have to fully pay for. If the exception were gone voter turnout would be huge and every school budget would fail. Then change can begin. Until we rise up and stop this blood letting nothing will change. Teachers are not Gods. Its just a job and its ridiculous for the general population to struggle to support benefits that they dont get.

Peter Everett

The more these “experts”(?) tinker with education, the more broke it becomes. When I became involved with education in 1971, students were better educated, in larger classes. Student problems were there, although to a lesser degree (something to do with discipline). Times have changed, not always for the better (definitely in education). Even with inflation, we saw a MUCH greater return on investment. One problem with gov’t is it refuses to look at history to see what worked, really well, in the past. Always trying to fix something that may not need fixing. What is going on now is NOT preparing students for life in the real world. In honesty, they are probably the least prepared for what lies ahead. Time to bring hardship into their sheltered world. We experienced it, we survived. The young, for the most part, are the most pampered in our history. Could the issues they have be caused by not letting them experience how to deal with adversity?

Kerry Glanz

This experimental educational system is failing our children and not preparing them for the real world. I can also attest to the failing proficiency-based educational system in New Zealand. We lived there two years ago, which was around 10 years post implementation of their proficiency system. My son attended the equivalent of a middle school grade for six months. What he mostly experienced were unmotivated students not interested in learning nor doing any homework and a curriculum that was years behind what he left here in Vermont. The bar seemed to have been lowered and over time, students learned how to game the system. During our travels, I happen to meet a few ex-teachers who left their jobs because of the proficiency-based system. They, too, saw it as a complete failure. Please, let’s learn from Maine and New Zealand and not continue to use our children as guinea pigs on what remains a theoretically-based system which has overwhelmingly negative results in practice.


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