Q&A: Students Appreciate Proficiency-Based Learning, Says Coach

Learning, PreK-12 / by

Jessica Smith, a proficiency-based learning coach in the Portland, Ore. area today shares insight into what it’s like to teach teachers, make the shift, and adjust students to proficiency-based teaching and learning (PBTL).

SC: How did you become a proficiency-based learning coach?

JS: I became a proficiency coach one year after attending a training on proficiency-based teaching and learning (PBTL) by the Business Education Compact (BEC).  I left the training disappointed that I had spent the first five years of my career teaching and grading students in a way that was completely driven by a canned curriculum, chasing points, and combining academics and student behavior to get a final grade. However, I was also extremely motivated to improve and I knew I needed to make the change to PBTL.

SC: What is the biggest challenge for teachers moving to a proficiency-based learning model?

JS: The biggest challenge to becoming a proficiency-based teacher is the initial time commitment. Targeting and unwrapping standards, establishing new grading norms, and creating rubrics and assessments were very time consuming. I recommend working with your peers, if you can, to share the workload.  Whether you are working alone or in a professional learning community (PLC) the cost (your time) is well worth the product (improved teaching practices and thus higher levels of student achievement).

SC: What tools make the transition to proficiency-based learning seamless?

JS: I could not have made the transition to PBTL, let alone lead others towards becoming proficiency-based teachers, without the training I received from the BEC. In addition to training, the BEC’s book It’s About Time does a fantastic job outlining the steps you should take to create a proficiency-based class as well as tools to evaluate yourself if you have already ventured into PBTL and want to further improve your practice. I also poured over countless books by Marzano, Dufour and Ainsworth to gain a deeper understanding of all aspects of PBTL.

SC: Where do you see the greatest return or benefit for proficiency-based learning and teaching?

JS: The deeper I dig into PBTL, the more I see the benefits for students, teachers, schools and the community. Students in my classes know exactly what they are expected to know and do. PBTL requires a high level of communication between students and teachers. The increase in dialogue about learning targets and expectations to achieve proficiency places students in the drivers’ seats of their learning experiences.  With guidance and encouragement from the teacher, students are setting goals for learning outcomes and have a clear path for achieving those goals.

SC: What role do parents play in proficiency-based teaching and learning?

JS: Parents play a huge role in the education of their children regardless of whether their children are in proficiency-based classes or not.  However, it is important that we educate parents on the differences and benefits of PBTL. When most of today’s parents were in school, their classes were not proficiency-based, thus they cannot relate to the experiences of their children.  It is vital that parents are given information on PBTL so that they can advocate for their children. This information allows parents to ask different questions when they visit with teachers about their students’; progress. Instead of asking how many points students have earned or what they can do to raise their grade, the teacher AND the student are prepared to report what the student has learned, what skills he has gained, and, frequently, how the new learning can be used in practical settings, careers, or for college preparedness. Again, communication is crucial.

SC: How do students react to proficiency-based learning and teaching?

JS: Students do not all react the same to PBTL. For most students PBTL is a huge change and change can be scary. However, if you layout your expectations and frequently remind them what they need to know and be able to do, they will buy in to this new form of teaching and learning. I have seen a huge increase in engagement from all students. Students who are high achieving appreciate being challenged whereas students who have traditionally done poorly in school because the didn’t turn assignments in on time or didn’t do enough extra credit truly appreciate that proficiency-based classes are transparent in nature and they know exactly what they need to know and do to demonstrate proficient or higher levels of knowledge and skill.

SC: How do you see proficiency-based learning changing education policy in the future?

JS: Education policy is an ever-changing entity.  However, PBTL is encouraging states, school districts, teachers and policy-makers to rethink traditional practices.  Is it best to group students according to their year of birth, or what some research experts call, “batching kids”? Or is it best to group students flexibly, according to their ability, which is constantly evaluated so that we know we are teaching our students the appropriate content at the appropriate level, regardless of their age or date of enrollment?  For too long, time has been the deciding factor for when students move forward to the next grade or the next concept.  PBTL requires us to make time the variable and learning the constant.  Additionally, the move towards PBTL demands that we develop a grading system that is focused on what students know and are able to do.  Gone are the days of letter grades; instead report cards will begin to document what students know and where they need to improve, separating behavior factors from academic achievement.

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