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What Proficiency-Based Education Looks Like Inside One Maine District

Maine’s first-year high schoolers this year will make history. They will be the first class that needs to meet a new requirement in order to graduate four years from now — they’ll have to demonstrate that they are proficient in a number of standards in order to receive a diploma.

This is the first in an extended series of reports on how this law is changing the way schools operate called “Lessons From Oak Hill,” focusing on the experiences of Regional School Unit 4, northwest of Lewiston.

When you walk inside Chad Drouin’s freshman geography class at Oak Hill High School, the first thing that stands out are the sticky notes. Every desk is flagged with either pink, green or blue, dividing them into three distinct groups. Drouin explains that the grouping signifies where each of the students are in their learning.

“And they have to look, ‘OK, where am I? Am I still on the Frayer model? If I am, I have to be sitting up at the front of the classroom, in the pink,’” he says. “That means they’re slightly behind pace, where I want them to be. So I need to be with them, close to the front of the room, right here with me, so I can be with them and get them beyond that level.”

If they have a green sticky note, Drouin says they’re right where they are expected to be. And if they’re blue?

“They’re ahead of pace, and they’re allowed to take the back of the classroom,” he says.

Once class starts, students then pull out a sheet of paper called their personal learning plan. It’s a large packet that lays out all their assignments for about the first two months of class. It tracks what they’ve finished and what they’ve still got left.

Instead of standing at the front of the room lecturing, Drouin walks from student to student and checks their progress.

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
Oak Hill High School teacher Chad Drouin meets with a student one-on-one during a social studies class.

“So you’re working on this. You did this last time. We still have to get to this,” he tells one student as he checks off her learning plan with a bright yellow highlighter.

Drouin says he still presents mini-lectures and leads discussions. But with this approach, he says, more control is in the hands of the students.

“The reason why I like it is because I get to talk to every single student,” he says. “One-on-one. Which never used to happen 10 years ago. There would be months going by, and I wouldn’t have a conversation with a student. So at least this way, I’m able to talk with every student a little bit at a time each day.”

Drouin says the move toward this new approach actually began about nine years ago, when the state forced districts across Maine to merge. Residents here say the merger of three neighboring towns — Wales, Sabattus and Litchfield — was difficult. There’s not much industry here, mostly farmland occasionally interrupted by an ice cream stand or gas station.

Longtime school board member Joan Thomas says the schools long had that same small-town feel.

“We didn’t quite have the horse and buggy,” she says, laughing. “But if someone was sick, needed to go home, the secretary would drive them home in her station wagon. We didn’t have a school bus that came right to the door. But we did have, in the younger grades, a custodian who would pick up the kids in her station wagon.”

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
Oak Hill High School teacher Chad Drouin uses multi-colored sticky notes to monitor the learning pace of the students in his classes.

It was hard for each town to give up local control. Old town conflicts had to be pushed aside. But to make the transition easier, the new district, called RSU 4, organized a “future search.”

School officials, teachers and community members gathered in the middle school gym to talk about what this new district should look like. And they talked about major issues, such as why students were not keeping up with the rest of the state on standardized tests in English and math, and why many kids were dropping out.

“It’s hard to argue, once you see the data, that we needed to do a better job. Having 40 to 60 percent of our kids not be successful, that couldn’t be acceptable,” says Jim Hodgkin, superintendent at the time. “I think it’s a product of a system created 120 years ago.”

Hodgkin says that old system — the A through F grading system — would have to go. At about the same time, the state Department of Education was promoting a version of proficiency-based education called “customized learning,” which placed an emphasis on students learning at their own pace.

Hodgkin says in RSU 4, grades are now mostly gone from report cards, replaced with a 1-4 system in which 3 is the target and means the student understands the subject.

“That’s the mindset change that RSU 4, and a lot of other schools, are going through,” Hodgkin says. “That’s the cornerstone of customized learning, proficiency-based education. Changing that whole thing from a factory model approach to, ‘This is your education. Own it.’"

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
On the walls of most classrooms in Oak Hill High School, teachers lay out the pieces of knowledge students are working on that day.

“There was also the hope that less and less kids would fall through the cracks,” Thomas says.

Thomas says the school board saw the appeal of these changes, and believed that kids would embrace it as well.

“And they would stay in school,” she says. “They would know, ‘Gee, I’m not that dumb. I can pick this up.’ Something would click with them that would interest them.”

Over the next few years, the school hired consultants to show them some of these strategies and work with teachers to help them design lessons and standards kids needed to know. Some liked it, some didn’t.

“And I can tell you: there was a flurry of people who left RSU 4,” Hodgkin says. “I invited them to leave. I was happy to see them leave. A lot of times, really good, popular teachers ended up leaving as a result of that change in philosophy.”

Today, the results of that change look different across the district. Some teachers have embraced much of it. At Oak Hill High you’ll see standards posted on classroom walls, telling students what the learning goal is on any given day.

But the customized part, with student pace? Many teachers have abandoned that approach, or never embraced it in the first place.

Oak Hill’s principal, Marco Aliberti, doesn’t think that’s a bad thing, though. He says this work has let teachers figure out what works for them and let them collaborate.

“We’re in fully. And we’re gonna take the steps necessary to make that change because it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “Not necessarily because the law tells us to do it.”

In Drouin’s geography class, students Matt Crowley and Coral Lynch say the new classroom strategies can sometimes be more confusing than helpful. But they say they like the extra attention from their teacher. Other times, they say, it’s almost too much.

“I mean, I like when he comes over and just says, ‘Get to work,’” Crowley says. “I will talk to Coral all day, just about stupid stuff. And he’ll interrupt and get us to work.”

“It can get aggravating sometimes,” Lynch says. “We are working. We’re just talking. We just need to do our work, I guess.”

Drouin believes it’s making a difference. Across the school, students who fall behind in class end up on something called the behind-pace list, which is sent out to students and parents. In Drouin’s class, however, few students ever end up on the list. He says that’s made him a believer.

“People have asked me, ‘So if we went away from proficiency-based education, what would your classroom look like then?’” he says. “And my answer has been, ‘It would look the same now.’ I couldn’t go back to what I was doing before.”

Beginning this year, though, Oak Hill High is trying even more structural changes across the school, including new interventions that it hopes will help every student meet the state’s new graduation standards.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

This story was originally published Nov. 10, 2017 at 3:32 p.m. ET.