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'I Had 20 Kids In 20 Spots:' Where Student-Paced Learning Has And Hasn't Worked In Maine

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Math teacher Heather Finn helps out a few students at Oak Hill High School in Wales

High school freshmen in Maine will graduate four years from now with a new kind of diploma, for which they'll have to show proficiency in a variety of subjects, from math and English to science. Schools have taken different approaches to implementing the new law. Some are using a model of "customized" or student-paced learning. And some schools are showing more success than others.

This is the latest installment in the yearlong series Lessons From Oak Hill.

At Oak Hill High School, students flock to Heather Finn's math classroom: before school, during a prep period, or late into the day. At any one time, Finn might be giving one student a quiz, helping three or four others catch up on notes, and working with half a dozen more on a project.

Finn can barely sit with a student for five minutes before someone is knocking on her door, looking for help or advice.

"Back in the day, I used to give detentions, because they wouldn't give homework," Finn says. "Well, I have so many kids who stay after school that I don't have time to give detentions. Because my room's already full! My after-school class is bigger than my normal classes, sometimes. So that's my focus. You wanna get it done? I'll help you."

Finn has been teaching at Oak Hill for most of her career, and she says the staff here is like a family. Only a few years ago, though, she thought about leaving.

"I was soul-searching at that point, because I was really struggling," Finn says. "I really hated my job at that moment."

The source of her struggles goes back almost ten years, when the district adopted a new kind of instructional style, called "mass customized learning." It's an idea pioneered by Bea McGarvey, a longtime Maine educator who wrote a book in 2011 outlining her vision of education, one without age-based grade levels that instead lets students work at their own pace.

"We've got to stop thinking about these old structures and say, 'We need to design an educational system so that kids can go at their own pace,'" McGarvey says.

McGarvey says that schools have been stuck in an "industrial age" that isn't doing enough to personalize education. She envisions a system in which students use technology to follow their own interests, with teachers designing collaborative seminars on more complicated topics.

"It's to create learning that is where they need to be," she says. "Taking into account their interests and styles of learning. When you create that, then you've hooked them."

Maine's Department of Education saw promise in the idea and, in 2011, Oak Hill officially joined the cohort of schools pursuing this kind of "student-paced" learning.

In Finn's classroom, the transition to this style of proficiency-based education included videos for students to watch at home. Finn says it worked well for a few months until it became clear that while some students had kept up and even gone ahead, others weren't doing the homework. Or notes. Or completing tests and quizzes.

"Then all the sudden, the separation starts happening," Finn explains. "So I have the kids who are on pace. Then the kids who are perpetually always behind. It got to the point where I had 20 kids in 20 spots."

"And it was impossible to teach," Finn adds. "So, so frustrating. I couldn't do it! I was so stressed.”

Finn says the result was an unmanageable classroom where some students ended up as much as an entire semester behind their peers.

Statewide, advocates for this kind of learning say that some schools misinterpreted the concept of letting students learn at their own pace.

"That was one of the big misunderstandings," says Linda Laughlin, the executive director of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning. Laughlin says those misunderstandings have slowed down the transition in many schools.

"What I noticed after five or six years, is that it was being interpreted as, 'If we're going to be meeting them where they are, and move them on at their own pace, that meant learners would never have deadlines. What a frustration, at the high school level, that generated," Laughlin says. "That's not what that meant. We can still set deadlines for learners."

And some districts report that student-paced learning is working.

At Forest Hills Consolidated School in Jackman, math teacher Natalie Costello does the equivalent of teaching three math classes at once. About a half dozen middle and high school students work on problems on one side of the room, while Costello leads a lesson for a few other students up at the board.

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
Math teacher Natalie Costello works with a student at Forest Hills Consolidated School in Jackman

Forest Hills was one of the first schools to implement "customized" learning, and teachers from elementary to high school are still using elements of it today.

"I think it gives them more of a chance and helps them say, 'I can do this.'" Costello says. "It's not just, 'I failed. Now what?'"

Forest Hills routinely hits a 90 to 100 percent graduation rate, and it's seen growth in its NWEA standardized tests scores since 2012.

But the school's small size could be a big factor in this success. Senior Carson Veilleux says it's easier to stay current on work when you're one of only five or six students in class. Veilleux says some students still put off deadlines, but the new system, he believes, is working.

“When we were freshman, it was really tough. We were the first class to do it.," Veilleux says. "So teachers were just starting out and coming up with plans and tweaking things as we were learning. It was a lot more difficult. But now that all the bumps are out, it’s going a lot smoother, I think."

But the bumps didn't get smoothed out at Oak Hill. A few years ago, administrators saw that student-paced learning wasn't working in the math department. It's been replaced with a system in which teachers again work at their pace. Students can still refer to videos, but Finn now teaches the class all at once, then works with students in smaller groups.

"I can have a conversation on chapter five," Finn says. "And at least we've all been talking chapter five. At least a little bit. So they would know what a parabola was, or whatever we were talking about. They'd have an idea of it."

Meanwhile, many teachers in Maine say the push to proficiency-based education is still leaving them feeling overwhelmed , as schools statewide try to find their way on the path toward proficiency.

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