ELLSWORTH — One recent summer morning, state Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock County) was on his way to pick up lobsters for the restaurant he co-owns with his wife on the Union River. But his mind wasn’t on crustaceans.
“You reached me at a good time,” Langley said. “I’ve been really worked up about this.”
The “this” he’d been thinking about was the recent rollback of Maine’s proficiency-based education standards, which Langley had championed for years.
“I don’t know if I can say it strongly enough,” Langley said. “I’m discouraged, saddened and angry that we gave up.”
In late June, the House and Senate voted to repeal parts of a law passed in 2012 that required students to demonstrate proficiency in up to eight subject areas in order to graduate.
This year’s freshman class was supposed to be the first to meet the new requirements, although many schools had already begun switching to proficiency-based diplomas.
Now, schools will decide whether to keep the proficiency-based model or return to a more traditional system.
Proponents of proficiency-based education say it provides a more tangible way to measure progress, ensuring that students — particularly those in under-resourced areas — leave school not only with a diploma but with the skills they need for the workforce.
Critics say the law was overly complex, removed local control and resulted in high-achieving students being unmotivated or having difficulty distinguishing themselves from their peers. Both say the state failed to put the resources into implementing the program.
Marielle Edgecomb, who won the nation’s highest award for educators in 2016, teaches at the Peninsula School, which had been transitioning to proficiency-based education before the state required it. She agreed that the mandate was rolled out too quickly “without any leadership or clear expectations about the path.”
The details of proficiency — what it means and how to measure it — were largely left up to schools.
But Edgecomb said the students and teachers in her district were successful in implementing the standards on their own, and that she’s thrilled with the results.
“When they leave my classroom I know exactly what it is that they’ve learned,” said Edgecomb, adding that the standards have made it easier to work with colleagues across the nation. “We now have common language, whereas before every school had different standards, if any standards.”
“Proficiency based education is research-based,” added Edgecomb, “it’s proven to work.”
Although not required, many schools switched to a 1-4 grading system as they transitioned to proficiency. Edgecomb said traditional grading, A through F or 1-100, “is different in every single classroom. They can’t define it. They can’t say that their student knows anything at all. Maybe they’re brilliant. Maybe they know how to cheat.”
“I can tell you what each child knows,” said Edgecomb, “and they can’t fake it.”
But critics argue that the system had “too many hoops for teachers and students to jump through,” said Rep. Heidi Sampson of Alfred. “We’ve got to allow teachers to teach and students to learn.”
“We’re essentially disenfranchising, disengaging, cutting off the actual learning process,” Sampson said. “Their hands are tied because of this top-down pressure.”
“They’re teaching teachers to be facilitators,” Sampson said.
Regional School Unit 24 (RSU 24) Superintendent Michael Eastman acknowledged that the district had undergone “transition pains,” but said transparency and extensive communication with parents, particularly regarding changes in grading, had ultimately made it successful.
“For those high-flying students we ask for deeper understanding and deeper application of the knowledge they’ve gained,” Eastman said. “We have no intentions of changing course at all.”
Changes to grading have caused particular concern among many parents. RSU 24 has continued to report class rank, said Eastman, but as a post on the department’s website explains: “Philosophically, class rank doesn’t fit with the proficiency-based education model because it is computed by comparing an individual’s performance against the performance of their peers. Class rank gives no indication of the level or degree of learning that has taken place.”
Ellsworth School Superintendent Dan Higgins said the district will wait for additional guidance from the Department of Education before deciding what changes, if any, to make to its system.
“We’ve expended significant effort and resources over the past several years,” Higgins said. “We see this as an opportunity to look at the system that we’ve been developing and potentially modify it to better fit our local needs.”
The state has spent millions to implement the system since 2012, and millions more has come from nonprofits, including the Massachusetts-based Nellie Mae Education Foundation.
The outside funding has caused some to worry about undue influence over the state’s educational system.
Langley dismissed the suggestion of outside influence, calling it a “conspiracy theory.”
He said the rollback was a “cruel joke” on students who may not recognize the importance of learning basic math and English when they’re in high school, but then feel frustrated when they can’t move up.
“As a business owner I see the tires fall off when high school graduates who come to work for me cannot do simple math or even write complete sentences,” Langley wrote in a letter to the editor this week.
“We have a workforce crisis and a shortage,” Langley said. “To have 37,000 working-age men sitting on the sidelines is just not acceptable. We need everybody in our society to be functioning to the best of their ability.”
Rep. Brian Hubbell (D-Bar Harbor) worked closely alongside Langley to push for a proficiency-based system.
“I started out as an advocate for local control. But I think this is going to create problems in terms of equity and opportunity in education,” Hubbell said.
“We don’t want to leave our students behind,” he added. “It’s telling that a lot of the opposition that we heard was coming from a set of students for whom everything is working right now.”
Both sides say the mandate was underfunded and under-resourced, and agree that shifting standards are a headache for everyone.
“It’s like a revolving door of reform,” Sampson said.
“Going back to the education community after pulling the rug out from under them,” said Langley, “means the next administration is going to find it hard to get any buy in from people.”
“The effect will be demoralizing,” said Ed Cervone, executive director of Educate Maine, in written testimony, and it will “continue to undermine the likelihood of any district supporting future state plans for education and student success.”