Proficiency-based education a success in Gray-New Gloucester

Commissioner Bowen asks questions of Jessica Burnell and Abby Chandler, two of the student panelists who helped describe their experiences with proficiency-based education at Gray-New Gloucester Middle School.
Commissioner Bowen asks questions of Jessica Burnell, left, and Abbey Chandler, two of the student panelists who helped describe their experiences with proficiency-based education at Gray-New Gloucester Middle School.

GRAY – No matter where Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen went during his school tour last Friday, he encountered a similar scenario: students taking control of their learning, reflecting the vision found in the Maine Department of Education’s strategic plan. Students, teachers and administrators at Gray-New Gloucester Middle School in Gray proved they are ahead of the game with their well-received proficiency-based, learner-centered instructional system.

Students from fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades volunteered to explain to the Commissioner the logistics of their individualized learning plans. And he was able to listen to students in different grade levels within the same classroom because, at Gray-New Gloucester, they are successfully breaking down age-based grade levels.

The system operates using matrices, charts of standards in any given unit that list all the assignments students must master to complete the matrix. Even the grading scale is different, assessing students with numbers one through four as opposed to assigning letter grades.

Kristi Fecteau, math and science teacher for levels five and six, said students used to ask, “What is an ‘A’?” But now, when students evaluate their progress, they say, “I know exactly what I need to know to get a three,” Fecteau said, because matrices guide them.

“This school’s innovative system is more tailored to the students’ individual needs,” Bowen said. “Students can go as fast or as slow as they need to go. No more saying ‘that’s a “C-,” good enough’ and moving on.”

If students don’t succeed in meeting a standard, they cannot simply move on, as is the customary practice nationwide. “Now you have to go and actually get the three so you actually understand it,” sixth grader Lauren Malloy said.  “It’s not like, ‘Oh, you didn’t pass.’ [Instead] you’re trying over and over.”

Before the school’s implementation of the proficiency-based model, Abbey Chandler was behind in math. Now, Chandler says she is ahead as a fifth grader. The new system gives students ownership over their own education, demonstrating one of the key priorities of the Department’s strategic plan. “I like it better,” Chandler said.

“We’re basically saying, ‘Here’s what you need to learn by the time you’re done here, but we’re going to give you the flexibility as students to determine what and how you’re going to learn it,’” Bowen explained.

“You’re changing, fundamentally, who’s in the driver’s seat of students’ education,” said Bowen, and Gray-New Gloucester has shown other Maine schools the benefits of allowing students to govern their learning.

Teachers at the school said they see remarkable changes since moving to a proficiency-based system. After the initial shock of giving up some control to students, they saw students more engaged and excited about their learning. They say while students do more work on their own, they are freed up to work individually with students. Rather than lessen their role, it heightens it.

“The kids have their own goals for the day; we check in with every kid,” Fecteau said. “I could never go back to teaching like I did before.”

More from the Commissioner’s tour

2 thoughts on “Proficiency-based education a success in Gray-New Gloucester

  1. Actually, the student’s comment on knowing what she needs to do in order to “get a 3” sounds very close to the “C-…good enough”. Why wasn’t she targeting the 4? Or, why are we still converting proficiencies to ordinal ratings? When we focus on the pairing of proficiencies with a score in order to arrive at a grade, we are a risk of continuing the same old paradigm, the psychology of doing just enough in order to have that stamp of approval. Instead, we need to be focusing on the learning tasks and proficiencies themselves. Maybe this school is doing this, but the article did not – it focused on the score.
    Also essential is the evidence that the student is proficient. If all we have is the rating of 3 or 4 given by a teacher, we are still in the same place as a grade of B or C. Proficiency based education must be paired with a robust portfolio system that displays everything the student has done to demonstrate proficiency.

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