Getting to Proficiency Post 10: Some notes for Wednesdays Faculty Meeting

There is an underlying agenda behind the standards based/ proficiency based educational model.  That belief is that there are substantial changes that need to occur in how students obtain a diploma in today’s world.  One of the tenets underlying the model is that too many students pass through educational systems without truly acquiring the skills and understandings required to be productive citizens in the future.  There is a secondary tenet underlying much of the work asked of schools in Maine and across the country.  There is a belief that there are a set of skills that students in today’s world must acquire in addition to the core set of understandings and literacies that have always been part of school curricula.  These skills are called by various names but lately are often referred to as 21st century skills.  They include skills such as;

  • problems solving
  • public speaking
  • group collaboration
  • economic literacy
  • research skills
  • perseverence

These skills are best taught in conjunction with the basics traditionally taught in our schools.  We need to be sure that they are embedded in our curricula and understand where we expect students to acquire these in addition to the traditional skills and understandings in our curricula.

I like the following quote to think about the importance of all of us understanding what we are trying to accomplish;

In some ways a good educational system is like a good orchestra.  Both have many groups of players with specialized jobs, such as school boards, taxpayers, families, teachers, principals, and administrators.  The orchestra sounds best when each musician is skilled, the instruments are well-tuned, and the sections work together in harmony toward the common goal of playing the best music they can.  But a changing America and world have handed the orchestra new music to play, and they haven’t gotten in sync yet or rehearsed the new repertoire enough to be ready to perform it.  No orchestra becomes great overnight, and the beauty of the music depends on lots of small steps, dedicated practice by musicians who have all the resources they need, and an orchestra conductor who can create harmony among all the parts. (Framing Education Reform, by Susan Ball Bales of the Frameworks Institute)

Below is my attempt at describing what I believe are the outcomes for a proficiency based system.  I also have shared what I believe is my rationale for supporting moving towards proficiency by using a portfolio approach, at least as a first step.


  • Schools must not only teach all students the most important knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in life, but they must also make sure all students have learned them.


  • Proficiency based grades are connected to clearly defined learning outcomes.
  • Teachers are very clear about what students need to learn.
  • Teachers are very clear about what constitutes sufficient evidence of proficiency.
  • Common, consistent methods are used to evaluate student learning.
  • Proficiency based grades separate academic achievement from behavior.
  • Proficiency based grades focus on learning progress.
  • Learning outcomes are fixed and time to develop proficiency is variable.
  • A robust and fair system of support and remediation is in place to support all students in developing proficiency.


The metaphor that I believe we should consider when thinking about making the shifts to a proficiency based system for grading and graduation is that of remodeling a house.  Accomplishing the changes noted above means more than just repainting our house, we have substantial changes that will be required to update older systems and improve efficiencies.   Remodeling also creates temporary inconvenience, dust, noise, and reduced functionality.  In any remodeling project it is important to identify what is working and functioning well and update and replace those systems and portions of the house that are dated and broken. We do not have to tear down the whole house to update and modernize.  We are not interested in demolition.

As we make some fundamental decisions about our direction of implementation, I think we need to give serious consideration to those approaches that allow us to address the systems that we wish to update.  In my mind that is a commitment to ensuring that every student graduates and graduates with the essential skills and understanding we will identify as critical for their future.  We need to accomplish this without demolishing the current structure.

In our case we are doing the remodeling, we are not hiring this project out and this has opportunity and risk.  The largest opportunity is that we will be able to craft the structure we believe is most appropriate for our students and community as we prepare them to move into a much larger world.  The risks or constraints are similar to real remodeling projects.  They include finances, time, and in our case the capacity to undertake the project.  We will have to learn new skills and develop new understandings to undertake some of this work.  Few homeowners undertaking a remodeling job can rest only on the skills they had coming into the project.  Some of us will need to learn how to wire, tile, floor, and plumb to accomplish our task over the next few years.

Yet, it is an opportunity to make substantial changes that can ensure that all students are ready and prepared for the next 50 years.  Our willingness to be thoughtful and careful in our implementation will ensure that we build a house we, our students, and our community can be proud of when it is completed.


About shawncarlson

Assistant Superintendent
This entry was posted in AOS 98, Assessment, Curriculum, Instruction. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Getting to Proficiency Post 10: Some notes for Wednesdays Faculty Meeting

  1. Tanya Hammond says:

    Going through a real-life home remodel myself, I can appreciate your metaphor, but I am not sure I agree with the implication that the standards-based course approach (model 1) is the complete tear-down. I worry that the portfolio-based approach is more like slapping a coat of paint on crumbling plaster instead of attaching new drywall to the solid beams behind. I fear the portfolio-based approach will at best drag out the process of making necessary fundamental changes and at worst simply disguise that fact that no substantive changes have truly happened.

  2. shawncarlson says:

    I appreciate your perspective, especially about not making substantive change. I have two thoughts, one is that I have no intention of missing an opportunity to make substantive change by looking for window dressing. The second and more salient point is that the work to prepare graduation standards and collect in a portfolio will still need to be done even if option 1 were the route taken. The difference is that a portfolio allows us to remodel a portion of our practice with out also having to redo the entire ground floor at the same time. Our capacity will be taxed even addressing just graduation standards without revamping all grading and reporting practices for all the content addressed in every course. The eventual move to a complete standards based reporting structure is still a very viable option after we have completed our graduation standards and reporting mechanism, but allows us to ramp up capacity, literacy about standards based structures, and structural changes while still taking required and much needed steps towards a proficiency based diploma. The two options are not mutually exclusive.

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