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Proficiency-Based Learning Model Gets Boost in New England
06/05/2014   Reported By: Jay Field

The push to get proficiency-based education into more New England high schools got a boost this week, when 55 public universities in five states endorsed this hands-on approach to learning. Under proficiency-based systems, students need to continuously show that they're mastering key skills in their subjects throughout their high school careers. Proponents say the stamp of approval from public universities and community colleges will mean a more seemless post-secondary transition for students who've been educated this way. Jay Field reports.

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Proficiency-Based Learning Model Gets Boost
Originally Aired: 6/5/2014 5:30 PM

One of the biggest proponents of proficiency-based education at the high school level is an organization called the Great Schools Partnership. Great Schools, based in Portland, is working with 450 high schools throughout New England, as they transition to this style of standards-based learning.

J. Duke Albanese, the group's senior policy adviser, says schools typically hold a series of public meetings for parents, as kids begin the transition to these new systems. Here's Albanese speaking during a Webinar earlier this week.

"Invariably, at these meetings, one of the first questions that would come up had to do with college," he said.

Albanese says it's a mom or dad, usually, saying something like, "This proficiency-based approach to learning and graduation from high school sounds great, but..."

"'You know, if you start changing grades, transcripts and those kinds of things then, wow, I'm not sure that's going to be the best thing,'" he quotes the parents as saying. "'The transcripts might signal the wrong things to colleges.'"

In the days after one of these meetings, Albanese says high school principals or guidance counselors would typically start calling around to colleges. And almost always, he notes, a college official would reassure them that there had been no problems correctly interpreting the transcript of proficiency-based learners.

But Albanese says that still didn't satisfy some parents. "So we came across this idea of a more formal way for our consortium, and the K-12 systems and the state departments of education in our five states, to approach our collegiate partners - the colleges and universities of New England," he said.

The result of these consultations? A formal endorsement of proficiency-based approaches by all 55 public universities in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut. In the pledge, the universities bless this approach to learning, and say transcripts from proficiency-based students will not disadvantage them in the admissions process in any way.

"It signals an awareness on the part of the higher ed community that, more and more, K-12 educators are thinking about just making sure that young people have the skills and knowledge necessary to really be ready," says Nicholas Donohue.

Donohue runs the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, a big financial supporter of proficiency-based learning experiments across New England. Just three private colleges signed onto this recent endorsement, but Donohue expects that to change.

"Private colleges and universities take people from all over the world, so there's no standard transcript. The information varies significantly," Donohue says. "So I think the higher ed community will respond and the privates will follow in suits."

Some universities who signed the endorsement are already moving to put their own proficiency-based systems in place. "Knowing quite a bit about teaching and learning, it was clear when I looked out to see what was happening in the public schools that they were on to something."

Linda Schott is president of the University fo Maine at Presque Isle. Schott believes proficiency-based education will produce students who are better prepared and more excited about their learning.

"We often complain about students who come to the university and they aren't completely prepared," Schott says. "Or even if they are well prepared, they have been taught to be passive throughout their educations."

Schott believes so strongly in the potential of proficiency-based learning to reverse these trends that she's convinced her fellow adminstrators and faculty to give it a try at UMaine-Presque Isle. The experiment there begins in the fall.


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