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UMaine Presque Isle Pioneers New Higher Ed Approach
02/13/2014   Reported By: Jay Field

The University of Maine at Presque Isle will soon become the first post-secondary institution in the state to move to a proficiency-based approach to learning. Under this model, students must master skills in different subject areas to keep advancing toward a degree. Critics say proficiency-based learning will create an ever wider class divide in higher education. But supporters argue it's the best way to equip as many students as possible with the skills employers are looking for. Jay Field reports.

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UMaine Presque Isle Pioneers New Higher Ed Approac
Originally Aired: 2/13/2014 5:30 PM
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So here's how this might work. You're a college freshmen and you decide you want to major in political science. At a typical four-year, public university, you'd probably kick things off with some big survey course - something like Introduction to American Government. But you've enrolled at the University of Maine Presque Isle, which just switched over to something called proficiency-based learning.

"One, you wouldn't be taking a course called Introduction to American Government or Introduction to Political Science any longer," says Ray Rice. Instead, says Rice, UMPI's vice president of academic affairs, you'd be part of something called an integrated learning community, working with several faculty members at once, earning between 9 and 12 credit hours.

Rice says to get your credits, you'd need to demonstrate mastery of certain skills: expository writing, analytical thinking, "understanding government, civics, political science issues."

But mastery, says Rice, wouldn't come by reading thick textbooks or attending hour-long classes in large lecture halls. Instead, you'd design a project.

"So your project that you might design as a part of that experience might focus on some aspect of the American government system, connected to a historical perspective, using competencies in oral and written communication," Rice says.

It might mean watching several hours of C-Span a day, volunteering in the local office of a U.S. congressman or senator, researching important legislation they've voted on and preparing an end-of-semester, multimedia presentation.

"The University of Maine at Presque Isle is transforming the way learning occurs," said Linda Schott, UMPI's president. At a Bangor new conference, she said the school had received a grant of nearly $200,000 from the Yarmouth-based Davis Educational Foundation to assist its transition to proficiency-based learning.

Individual learning plans will focus, from day one, on a student's potential career choice and the skills they'll need to master to get a job. Schott says there's another important reason UMPI is moving in this direction.

"As many off you know, Maine's public high schools are transitioning to proficiency-based education," she said. "We completely believe that this is a form of education that will allow many more people to achieve a college degree."

Many of the 1,400 students who attend UMPI are the first in their families to go to college. Amy Slaton is a professor of history at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where she studies the history of techical education in America. Slaton says policymakers and educators across the country, rushing to embrace proficiency-based learning, are doing so with good intentions. But she says the approach also has some serious drawbacks.

"It tends to reassert demographic, socioeconomic differences. Right," she says. "The people who can afford less, get less. And that's not how education is supposed to work in our country. Education is supposed to be this instrument of infinite achievement."

Slaton says you wouldn't always know that by the way educators, politicians and others talk about proficiency-based learning. "A lot of the rhetoric disguises that this isn't the same educational experience that you get for more payment and more time on campus."

But if families can't afford to pay for four-year liberal arts schools or more traditional state schools, does that mean their kids will be without options for post-secondary education? Education officials in Maine, and many other states say no, and will likley continue to support the growth of proficiency-based learning to give everyone who wants to go to college the chance to do so. 

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