Education Evolving: Maine's Plan for Putting Learners First

Core Priority Area 3: Multiple Pathways for Learner Achievement

  1. Advancement based on demonstration of mastery
  2. Student voice and choice in the demonstration of learning
  3. Expanded learning options
  4. “Anytime, anywhere” learning

For generations, the adults in our schools have decided what students learn; when, where, and how they learn it; and in what ways they demonstrate what they have learned. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that this approach, in which the learner is obligated to adapt to the educational institution instead of the other way around, simply does not work for many kids. For too long, such a model has prevented too many students from finding success in the school environment.

The system of schools we have today is one in which time is the constant and learning is the variable. Teachers and students are given a fixed period of time in which to cover a fixed curriculum. The result is a model that falls short of meeting the needs of all students. Some students disengage because the pace of the class does not challenge them, while others fail to achieve learning goals because the pace is too fast. As Nicholas Colangelo, Susan Assouline and Miraca Gross write in their 2004 report, A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students, our system of education keeps the most advanced students from reaching their full potential “by forcing them to learn in a lock-step manner with their classmates.” “The evidence,” the authors write, “indicates that when children’s academic and social needs are not met, the result is boredom and disengagement from school.”

Along with being grouped with students of the same age, students are expected to learn in the same physical setting as all other students in their community: in a brick and mortar elementary school, middle school, and high school within defined geographical boundaries. Within the physical structure, learning in one content area is often completely separate from learning in another: Math is learned in math class and civics in civics class. Credit is earned by sitting in certain classes for certain periods of time.

In a learner-centered, proficiency-based system, students advance upon demonstration of mastery, rather than remain locked in an age-based cohort that progresses through a fixed curriculum at a fixed pace, regardless of learning achievement.

The good news is that schools and districts across Maine and the nation are already implementing a learner-centered instructional approach, one that provides learners with more say in their education, more choices about how, where and when they learn, and more opportunities for them to demonstrate success anytime, anywhere. The work of these educational pioneers, who are providing customized experiences for each student, should be studied. Best practices in learner-centered, proficiency-based instruction should be developed, shared, discussed, and constantly improved.

Additional steps must be taken to provide learners with every opportunity to succeed. Learners must be partners in and directors of their own learning. They must help to design learning activities and have some say in how that learning will be evaluated. For example, schools across Maine already make use of “capstone projects” - interdisciplinary, theme-based assessment instruments designed, at least in part, by the students themselves.

As we move away from the factory-era, assembly line model of schooling, we must also begin moving away from the practice of having the student’s street address serve as the primary determinant of the school that student attends. Expanding school choice options, such as charter schools, meets this goal. Moreover, we need to move away from a model where the only place that learning is recognized as having happened is in school. More than any previous generation, this generation of young people will be one of lifelong learners, acquiring new skills and processing new information as a routine part of life. The technological age in which we now live will provide this generation of learners with access to a variety of learning options and opportunities that is without precedent in human history. Already, through the Internet, students have access to an enormous variety of learning options, including online courses delivered at little or no cost from all over the world. The idea that the learning that takes place outside the walls of the school somehow doesn’t “count” is yet another idea whose time has come and gone.

Truly embracing a “learning without barriers” model will mean more flexibility within the walls of the school and more opportunities for learning outside the walls. It will require a new architecture for learning, one that involves new ways of organizing students for instruction, new ways to assess student learning, and new learning opportunities both within the existing structure of schools and beyond it.

A system that fully recognizes multiple pathways for a student to achieve will embrace the following four tenets:

  • Advancement based on demonstration of mastery
  • Student voice and choice in the demonstration of learning
  • Expanded learning options
  • “Anytime, anywhere” learning

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1. Advancement based on demonstration of mastery

For as long as anyone can remember, learners have been organized into groups by age. They move through school in age-based cohorts in lockstep, whether they fully understand what is taught or not. As a consequence, students who have already mastered certain content must wait for the others to catch up, while those who have yet to fully understand a certain concept are pushed to move on anyway. What is needed is a move to a learner-centered, proficiency-based system in which learners advance only when they have demonstrated mastery of defined learning outcomes.

Transitioning from the age-based grade level model, which has been in place for more than a century, to something new will take a sustained effort over a number of years. Luckily, there are already schools and school districts here in Maine leading the way by moving forward with proficiency-based systems. The state should take an active role in supporting these efforts, undertaking research on this new approach and reporting outcomes. The Department’s new Center for Best Practices, supported by grant funds, should study and report on the work of Maine districts implementing a proficiency-based model. Through the online Communities of Practice collaboration platform, to be developed by the Department in 2012, materials and resources related to proficiency-based models can be shared. The platform can also provide a platform for professional discussion and development connected to those materials.

Since the adoption of the Maine Learning Results standards back in 1997, the Maine Legislature has envisioned a true, proficiency-based system, including a standards-based high school diploma. If Maine is serious about moving in this direction, legislation will need to be adopted that moves the state away from age-based grade levels and Carnegie units as a measure of academic progress at the high school level. Statutory language should be adopted embracing a true standards-based high school diploma.

Goal: All Maine students learn in a proficiency-based model that allows them to move at their own pace and advance when they have mastered learning outcomes.

Objective: Develop and implement a comprehensive set of state policies and supports to aid schools and school districts as they move from an age-based model to a proficiency-based model of schooling.

Action Steps:

Initial Action Steps

Progress on Action Steps

Response/Next Steps

3.1.a Center for Best Practice
Establish a Center for Best Practice at the DOE to focus on research and reporting related to proficiency-based systems in Maine.

The Center was launched and now includes six detailed case studies, 10 videos, dozens of resources and best practices for and from Maine’s schools with a focus on learner-centered instruction.

Additional “best practices” materials need to be posted that relate to other school improvement approaches beyond learner-centered instruction.

3.1.b Online communities
Use the online Communities of Practice to share resources and best practices related to proficiency-based learning.

Launched a pilot for eight initial practice teams. Currently developing additional capabilities related to sharing digital learning resources, consistent with recommendations of digital learning task force.

The site needs to be expanded beyond the pilot and connected to school improvement efforts. The DOE will review in partnership with educators the OCP for effectiveness and to determine next steps.

3.1.c Learner-centered instruction team
Establish a learner-centered instruction team at the Maine DOE, tasked with coordinating support for proficiency-based districts and establishing a communications strategy related to proficiency-based systems.

A learner-centered instruction team has been created and implementation resources have been developed.

The team is meeting with other members of the Standards and Instructional Supports team on an ongoing basis to discuss the implementation resources, with a special focus on communication supports.  Continued effort is need to clarify expectations and coordinate this work with CTE.

3.1.d Proficiency-based diploma
Adopt statutory language requiring proficiency-based high school diplomas by a date certain.

A technical assistance plan and a learner-centered team were developed by the DOE pursuant to LD 1422 (PL 2011, Ch. 669).  The DOE also provided extensive implementation tools and funding. The Center for Best Practice features case studies, videos and resources for learner-centered instruction.

The learner-centered instruction team is being expanded to include all members of the standards and instruction team and others across the Department. Work to support SAUs is ongoing, with a special focus on communications.

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2. Student voice and choice in the demonstration of learning

A truly learner-centered model of schooling allows for advancement based on demonstration of mastery. It also makes the learner a partner in determining not just the learning activities to be undertaken but the means by which that learning is to be demonstrated.

In schools across Maine and the nation, some variation of this model already exists. In high schools, especially, students are often asked to design culminating experiences such as senior theses or capstone projects. Such projects are generally conducted in collaboration with faculty advisers, are often interdisciplinary in nature, and are typically shared or presented in a public forum. The intent of such projects is not only to demonstrate the application of student learning, but to mirror the kind of work typically found in the world beyond high school, where one applies skills and knowledge from a variety of content areas to create a new product or new meaning.

To ensure that assessments of student learning are valid and reliable, efforts must be made to develop standards for learner-designed, performance-based assessments, and to provide both teachers and students with exemplars of such assessments, including examples of student work.

The state can play a role here, using the online Communities of Practice to develop a clearinghouse of such assessment tools. The ability to upload video clips and other materials to the platform will allow for the posting of exemplars of student work. The potential also exists for professional development opportunities to be made available that allow teachers to score student-developed projects online, using a common rubric, and compare the score they give to the scores of others.

In pursuing this work, policymakers need to take care to avoid the mistakes of the “local assessment systems” initiative of the early 2000s, which, in an attempt to provide local control over student assessment, created an extraordinary amount of work for teachers and school leaders. Efforts should be made to take full advantage of modern technology to make available to educators a wide variety of learner-centered assessment approaches.

Goal: Learner-designed assessments are used in schools across Maine, making students active participants in setting and meeting expectations.

Objective: Provide Maine’s educators with access to exemplars of valid, student-developed assessment tools and expand professional development opportunities related to the implementation of such assessment systems.

Action Steps:

Initial Action Steps

Progress on Action Steps

Response/Next Steps

3.2.a Communities of Practice
Use online Communities of Practice to share resources and best practices.

Launched a pilot for eight initial practice teams. Currently developing additional capabilities related to sharing digital learning resources, consistent with the recommendations of digital learning task force.

The site needs to be expanded beyond the pilot and connected to school improvement efforts. The DOE will review in partnership with educators the OCP for effectiveness and to determine next steps.

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3. Expanded learning options

Today, all public schools are required to provide students the opportunity to attend Career and Technical Education (CTE) and access its rigorous career preparation programming. Adult Education programming and the post-secondary options it offers are also prevalent throughout the state. School systems create additional educational options as well, in the form of alternative schools. In addition, thousands of Maine students can choose the schools they attend, and with the passage of recent legislation, Maine will soon allow the development of public charter schools, creating yet another educational option for learners.

While learning opportunities such as these may provide many students with a more appropriate educational setting, access is often limited. Every effort must be made to ensure that students can access a wide array of rigorous, proficiency-based educational programming, both within the resident school unit and outside of it.

And while schools today typically “count” only the learning that happens within school walls during the school day, a learner-centered educational system recognizes that learning takes place in many settings at all times of the day. More than any generation before it, this generation of young people will have access to countless learning opportunities, presented in a variety of settings. Schools are only beginning to move in this direction. They must work collaboratively with families, businesses, community organizations and others to accelerate this evolution and provide all students with rigorous, real-world learning opportunities.

Goal: A wide variety of learning opportunities and settings give all students access to educational options that work for them.

Objective: Establish in statute “multiple pathways” for student achievement that minimize barriers to available education options and ensure access to a broad array of learning options.

Action Steps:

Initial Action Steps

Progress on Action Steps

Response/Next Steps

3.3.a CTE legislation
Adopt statutory language to expand student access to CTE and allow students to use Adult Education classes as a path to high school completion.

Two bills were enacted to strengthen and support CTE, including the common school calendar mandate.

The Department will work with stakeholders to develop strategies to address remediation issues, including greater use of Adult Education. Staff will also work to adopt a new CTE funding model.

3.3.b Charter school law
Fully implement the state’s charter school law, including establishment of Maine Charter School Commission (MCSC); enactment of the DOE bill updating statutory language; final adoption of rules governing charter school development.

The Commission has been put into place, its rules and policies adopted, and it has approved five charter schools—all now operational.

As the Commission moves from approval of charter schools to oversight of them, the DOE will ensure the appropriate operations and oversight work is being done and will provide support as necessary.

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4. “Anytime, anywhere” learning

While schools once had a near monopoly with regard to the provision of educational programs and services, technological advances provide students today with a far wider array of educational options.

Online and digital learning, for example, which allows students to learn at the time, place and pace most effective for them, is growing dramatically. The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) reports that “in 2010, over 4 million K-12 students participated in a formal online learning program,” and that “online learning enrollments are growing by 46 percent a year.” That growth rate, reports iNACOL, “is accelerating.”

While Maine led the way a decade ago with a learning technology initiative that put laptop computers into the hands of tens of thousands of students, the state is falling behind when it comes to digital learning. States across the nation have launched online or virtual schools of one kind or another, and some have even mandated that students take at least one digital course as a condition of graduation. Maine needs a comprehensive digital learning strategy that ensures its students are prepared for the digital age in which they live.

Teachers and school leaders will also need additional knowledge and skills as digital learning becomes more popular and widespread. Efforts should be undertaken to ensure that teacher and leader preparation programs include training in digital learning, and the state’s learning technology team should continue its work to provide ongoing professional development opportunities related to digital learning.

As for Maine’s schools, if they are to remain relevant in this changing world, they must adopt an approach that recognizes digital learning options and must begin tailoring their own educational programming to allow for “anytime, anywhere” learning. The state can assist in this effort by providing a clearinghouse of digital learning resources and by establishing and reporting on digital learning best practices.

Goal: All Maine learners actively participate in digital learning opportunities that engage them and allow self-directed, self-paced learning.

Objective: As part of a comprehensive digital learning strategy, develop approaches to assist districts in adopting policies and practices that support “anytime, anywhere” learning, including expanded access to digital learning and other educational options outside the classroom.

Action Steps:

Initial Action Steps

Progress on Action Steps

Response/Next Steps

3.4.a Digital learning plan
In collaboration with stakeholders, adopt a comprehensive, multi-year digital learning strategic plan designed to expand access to digital learning opportunities for all Maine students.

The Digital Learning Task Force (DLTF) has met several times. Initial work has been undertaken and broad recommendations with regard to digital learning have been developed.

Staff is now working on drafting a final proposal for a plan of action based on feedback from the DLTF.

3.4.b Share digital learning practices
Develop and post to the DOE website materials and resources related to digital learning best practices.

The Department has not yet developed a platform for the sharing of digital learning resources or best practices.

Staff is working to gauge the interest of other states in the development of a digital learning clearinghouse. DOE staff and educators are participating in the development of a digital library of formative and interim assessment tasks. The Center for Best Practice should also include best practices in digital learning

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