Radio Interview: Proficiency-Based Education

Last Saturday (September 19th), I went on the air with Julie McDonald-Smith, author of this article in The Forecaster, to talk about proficiency-based education.  Here’s a link to the podcast, and a transcription of our conversation below.

JMS:  Emily Talmage is a fourth grade teacher at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston. She has also taught special education in New York City – New York is another state that’s been under assault in the education realm.  She received a master’s degree in urban education from Mercy College and a master’s in developmental psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University.  While in New York, she also worked part-time as a research assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College.  She returned home to Maine in 2012.  She’s worked as a research analyst at Oldham Innovative Research in Portland prior to returning to the classroom.  She lives in Auburn with her husband and her almost one year old soon.  Hi Emily, thanks for coming on this morning.

ET:  Hi Julie, thanks for having me.

JMS:   You know, in the last half hour we were talking with David Lentini and trying to give listeners a little bit of an introduction into how these supposedly new ideas in education make their way into our state. You hear a lot that proficiency-based education is research-based, and David was explaining that that there virtually is no such thing in education.  These things come and go on a thirty year cycle.  We’ve seen outcome-based education; we’ve seen Common Core; now we have proficiency-based education.  I really want listeners to understand – and parents especially – that this affects every public school, child, in the state of Maine. It doesn’t matter if you live in some of the wealthier towns, if you’re in Cape Elizabeth or Falmouth or Yarmouth, or if you’re in some of the less advantaged towns, the smaller towns, the more rural towns.  The same program is going to be pushed – is being pushed – on every child.  I mean you could almost make that claim that, you know, some of these towns that like to say “oh, come move here, we’ve got a great education system” – local control is on its way out.  And I know you’ve been following proficiency-based education very closely.   I have a column this week in The Forecaster about the influence that Nellie Mae has in this state, in lobbying and pushing for proficiency-based education.  As a mom and a teacher, Emily, why don’t you tell us what you have found out about this type of learning?

ET:  Sure.  So you know David did a really nice job explaining how these reforms kind of keep coming back.  And proficiency-based education is one of those reforms that has been tried and failed a lot of times in history – in fact, I was just looking, there’s an article from the Washington Post in 1977 explaining – it’s identical to the reform that we are going through here in Maine.

JMS:  Unreal.

ET: Yeah and it’s kind of interesting   – you know, it went away.  And that’s happened various times throughout history.  But what’s interesting now with proficiency-based education – it’s being pushed as a response to these failed reforms that we’ve had, “this is fresh, this is gonna work” – a lot of rhetoric about how this is a response to this failed factory model  of schools, we’ve been “stuffing sausages,” which – you know, is really not true.  So the reality is that proficiency-based education right now is being pushed very hard by nationwide – and not just nationwide but actually worldwide – by the digital, online, and student loan industry.  And the reason for that is that this proficiency-based system goes hand-in-hand with what’s also referred to as “personalized” or “customized” learning – and you’ll hear the phrases “anytime anywhere” –

JMS: “Student-centered…”

ET:  Exactly, you know, “student-centered,” teachers are “guides on the side” – which , you know, personally as a teacher, I find that phrase…it bugs me.  But, the fact is that these companies see a prime opportunity sell their products, their online products, you know – and with the student loan industry – I think you kind of mentioned in your article – the idea is to link high school all the way through college so that instead of having these breaks that we’re used to with grade levels and even college level, it’s all just this set of skills that you perform, you get measured, and if you perform them up to par  you get promoted.

And you know another piece of it is that it’s not just skills. Parents might see this fall when they get their kids’ first report card – you should look for a section called “Habits of Work”

JMS:  Very Creepy.

ET: Yeah well, we’re actually also being asked to measure on a one through four kids’ habits of work.  And this is just an aside – I thought it was kind of interesting because a couple of weeks ago, Heidi Sampson of No Common Core was on MPBN she mentioned that this is actually related to an Eastern European model of schooling.  And everybody kinda scoffed and laughed, but you know – I looked it up, you know, is that true or not?  And it turns out that that phrase “habits of work” really does come right out of the polytechnic system that they used in Russia mid-century.  So, I mean, I don’t say that to scare people, but it’s worth looking up where these ideas are coming from and where they have their roots.

But anyway, so there’s very little research – this idea has failed –but now you enter Maine.  Because what happened, a lot of people know that with Common Core, it was billed as this state initiative, when in reality, we applied for Race to the Top funding, and in order to get that funding, we had to agree to adopt the Common Core Standards. But what a lot of people don’t know is that Maine is one of five states that also agreed to become a member of what’s called the “Innovation Lab Network.”  And the Innovation Lab Network is a program run through the chief – CCSSO – the Council for Chief State School Officers.   And the Innovation Lab Network is run now by Stephen Bowen who is our former commissioner.  This is now his project.

Maine is one of five states – and this program is designed – and this is straight out of the MOU that we signed with them back in 2009 hat can be found in the appendix of our Race to the Top application – that this initiative will “generate proof points”  that we can then “scale up.”  So the idea is to use Maine, and I believe New Hampshire, Oregon – I can’t remember the other two – to push this system, conduct research real-time, in the classroom, and then hopefully scale it up nationwide.  That’s the goal.

JMS:  So they’re actually saying they’re going to be conducting research while this is ongoing.

ET: Absolutely.

JMS: They’re not saying we’re bringing you this wonderful method of education that’s research-based and proven.  No.  They’re saying their own language and in their own documents that this is an experiment.

ET: Right.  So this is actually a quote:  “The labs network will employ collective state action to create proof points or tangible manifestations to deliver the educational outcomes that we seek.”

So, that’s quite a bit different than the type of pharmaceutical research that David Lentini was talking about.  And the piece that as a teacher, but also, actually, as a mom, that really concerns me is that there’s been no process of informed consent.  So when I worked as a research assistant at Teachers College, even if we just wanted to administer a simple survey to children – there’s really, there are protections against that – and you need to get what’s called IRB approval, you need to get parent consent – even to just do something simple like administer a survey – because children are really well protected in certain settings.

But in this case, it feels like that process has been bypassed and that through this policy that’s been implemented in our state – this proficiency-based mandate – and by the way, listeners should know that Maine is the only state with that law – that children are subjected to this like it or not, and they are being experimented upon…like it or not.

JMS: Could you just go back for a second, Emily, that statement that you just read where in their own language they said the were looking for research that would prove the outcomes that they are seeking. Just repeat that one more time. Let that sink in.

ET: Yep – so, the “labs network” – of which Maine is a part “will employ collective state action to create proof points or tangible manifestations of scalable state and district systems that deliver the educational outcomes that we seek.” And that’s a direct quote, straight out of the Memorandum of Understanding that we signed – and it can be found in the appendix of our Race to the Top application. So, you know, we’ve signed up for this. And we’ve resigned this MOU each year. We re-signed it this past year. So, we’re part of the network, and proficiency-based education is a piece of this initiative.

So what’s happened is this organization of Stephen Bowen’s, CCSSO, now works with Nellie Mae. And you wrote about Nellie Mae really well in your article. Nellie Mae was a foundation that was born of a student loan sale. They’re based in Quincy, Massachusetts. And they have basically bankrolled this initiative here in Maine. They’ve funded lobbying; they’re funding the organizations which are now coming into our districts to teach us how to do this. So, Great Schools Partnership, has gotten upwards of 3.5 million dollars from Nellie Mae to start up this consulting business, which now is working with my district here in Lewiston. I believe – you know, if you go online, they’re working with a huge number of districts in our state.

JMS: The list is extensive.

ET: Well, and I think it’s interesting that when this mandate was passed, there was a small amount of funding that went with it – I think 1.9 million – that money, a huge percentage of it, went straight back to these consulting firms – these organizations that come into our schools… and you know. Yeah. It kinda leaves me speechless.

JMS: So we’re talking with Emily Talmage. She’s a teacher in Lewiston. We have a call from Bill in Cape Elizabeth. Hi, you’re on with Emily.

Bill: Hello, Emily.

ET: Hi!

Bill: I’ve got a question for you. You’re a fourth grade teacher, correct?

ET: You bet.

Bill: I’m not exactly sure what the objection to proficiency-based education is. Let’s say, for example, your fourth grade students – let’s say that either Common Core or proficiency-based education – let’s say that that standard – one standard – is that your fourth grade students should be able to divide one fraction by another fraction. Let’s say they should be able to divide one fraction, three-quarters, by another fraction, two-thirds. Now, it seems to me that it’s very easy to determine – you can determine – if your students are proficient in this and if they’re not. So, are you objecting to the fact that there is a standard that your fourth grade students have to be able to meet?

ET: Yeah, no. So, you have to be careful, because “proficiency-based” – in many ways, this is what teachers do anyway. You know, when I teach math, every day, after every lesson, I do what’s called a little “exit ticket.” I sort my kids into who got it, who didn’t. You know, the next day I know who needs a little extra help, who’s ready to move on. And we operate that way. And in some sense, that’s a proficiency-based model, and it certainly lends itself better to math than other subjects that are less performance-based. And so certainly, no, I have no problem with standards.

What I have a problem with is that with a proficiency-based model, kids simple can’t move on to the next grade or the next level until they’ve met whatever has been set for them. So it kinda opens this giant can of worms, which is – first of all, who says what’s proficient? Who decides that? What happens to kids that aren’t proficient? What happens if a kid, for example, really struggles with fractions, but does really well with division? Do we have to keep them on fractions for three or four months before they can move on? So there are all sorts of logistic problems that come up.

JMS: Well, and also the fact that kids don’t – you know, learning isn’t linear like that. I mean it’s – maybe you have to introduce them to – I mean, you’re the teacher, you tell me – but, maybe you have to introduce them to something slightly different, and then maybe come back to that. Rather than just saying, “You’re blocked. You have to stop here, and you cannot move on.”

ET: Yeah, and well another – you’re right. It’s an idea that sounds great in theory but in practice doesn’t work particularly well. And then another part of it is that, you know, philosophically – some of learning is what we call “procedural” – skill-based – but not all of it. You know, not all learning is something that a child does or something that can be measured. Some of it is what they know, or new understandings that they have, that isn’t necessarily a skill that you can then rate on a scale of one, two, three or four. And to reduce education to some that procedural and that simple – to me, it vastly oversimplifies what a really good education is.

You know, I was really blessed – I went to Phillips Exeter Academy for high school. We definitely didn’t use a proficiency-based system there. We did a traditional liberal arts education. And there were things, you know – I struggled in math, I wasn’t a great math student, but I was a good reader and writer –and you know, if I had been stuck in a proficiency-based system, I would have been trying to find the sine and cosine of a triangle for my entire time at Exeter. But instead I got to move on. I got exposed to new topics And I got this really fabulous education.

And you’ll notice that schools like Exeter aren’t adopting this model. They have no interest in it; they have no concern for it, because they realize that education is much more than just procedural knowledge. And its much more than just measuring, “What can a child do?”

And that’s what proficiency-based education forces our education system to boil down to. And that’s the piece that I have a problem with.

So, standards? Absolutely not. I hold my kids to very high expectations and for the most part they meet them, but yeah. That’s a great question, and it’s important to get those pieces ironed out – you know, what is it that we’re really talking about it.

JMS – The vocabulary, right. So, we’ve got – in four minutes or less, Emily, tell us what you’re problem is with Nellie Mae, and the way they sort of under-handedly, if you will, brought proficiency-based education into this state?

ET: Right. So Nellie Mae actually funded a group called Educate Maine – which, if you look them up, they were actually funded with the express purpose of lobbying for this bill back in 2012 – and now they also control the PR. So they’re now running something called Moose Camp that took place this summer… So they’re really controlling, I feel, the dialogue of what this is. You’ll hear a lot about, for example, Casco Bay High School – which, you know, I hope that they’re all having a really great experience there, but, Casco Bay has also gotten huge grants from Nellie Mae, and they’re now being held up as the poster child for what proficiency-based education is. So, you hear a lot about them. But you don’t hear a lot about experiences in Lewiston, for example, where this has really been hard. And teachers have left. I mean, I have friends who have left the district because its been such a difficult experience. And, it’s not a criticism of Lewiston; I love my district, I think we have some really great people working there. So it’s not a criticism of Lewiston itself. It’s the way this system has been thrust upon us.

JMS – Well, it’s problematic, Emily – I mean, I’m not excusing anyone at Casco Bay of anything –

ET: No, me either.

JMS: But, when you have a school that’s been a recipient of that many dollars of grant-funding, I mean – you know, what else are they gonna say? Are they gonna say no, this is terrible, and cut off the cash cow? I mean, there’s an inherent conflict of interest.

ET: Yeah. And you know, another piece – I’m kinda rare among teachers in that I speak up a lot, but a lot of teachers don’t.  And so maybe a lot of principals think, “You know, I haven’t heard anything negative about this. My teachers seem to love it.” But, we’re not in a particularly good place to be able to say that we like this or we don’t like this. You know, I kinda had the straw- whatever that expression is – my back broke – this spring, where it was like you now what? I can’t keep quiet about this. But a lot of teachers haven’t gotten to that point. And so, you don’t get a lot of honest feedback coming from the trenches. And you know, that’s concerning, I think.


Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

6 thoughts on “Radio Interview: Proficiency-Based Education”

  1. Thanks for all of your posts, I have read several. I am glad I left Maine a year and a half ago to teach in a classical charter school in Texas. I taught for two years in Maine as middle school music teacher after working for a year at Montello (great people, great experience!) as an Ed tech. In rsu 10 we were all about “mass-customized learning” and teachers as “facilitators” rather than masters of their subjects. Boy am I glad to be out of that. Don’t get me started on the tablets and electronics addiction. My four children are subject to long “fasts” of several weeks between brief electronics use, and they attend the classical school I work at. We are part of the charter school initiative overseen by Hillsdale College, a champion of independence and classical education.


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