May 25, 2019
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Brewer High teachers say they want a full retreat from ‘proficiency-based’ diplomas

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Abby Murchie drops an Alka-Seltzer into a bottle of water during a greenhouse effect lab in biology class at Brewer High School last month. At left is one of her lab partners, Kaiya Abeyta.

Teachers at Brewer High School have a message for the city’s school committee: They’re frustrated with proficiency-based education, and they want their school to return to conventional course credits and grades.

Even though the state has retreated from its six-year push to require “proficiency-based” diplomas, teachers are concerned that Brewer’s schools are not changing their related policies enough in response.

“Teachers are incredibly frustrated about the direction we’re going in,” science teacher Glendon Rand said at a Brewer School Committee meeting Monday night.

Rand conducted a survey of Brewer High School’s teachers at the start of the month in which he invited the school’s more than 40 teachers to participate. About 80 percent of teachers responded, and they overwhelmingly preferred a traditional system that allows students to graduate based on earning passing grades and accruing a particular number of course credits. Under a proficiency-based diploma, students have to show they’ve mastered the state’s various academic expectations in the required subject areas in order to graduate.

“The Maine proficiency-based diploma law was repealed several months ago,” he said, referring a legislative vote in July repealing a 2012 law eventually requiring proficiency-based diplomas statewide. “Schools are bailing on it all over the state, but we are keeping most elements of it. Why?”

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The Brewer School Committee is considering a policy that would alter the school district’s graduation requirements after last summer’s law change. The new policy would institute a hybrid system, rather than entirely eliminate the proficiency-based elements. Even though students would have to meet credit requirements and post passing grades to graduate, a Brewer High School transcript would also list the progress students have made toward reaching proficiency in the state’s academic expectations, or standards.

A number of other Bangor-area school districts have already reverted to traditional credit systems, abandoning the push toward proficiency-based diplomas. Brewer stands out in proposing to retain some proficiency-based elements.

Rand said he wants the Brewer School Committee to reconsider the hybrid policy based on teachers’ concerns.

“I think if you pass this policy tonight, you’ll be right back here in one or two years just like you are tonight, because there was so much in the policy approved two years ago that was unrealistic and clearly wasn’t going to happen,” he said, referring to the policy enacted in 2017 that eliminated the credit-based system.

According to Rand’s survey, 83.3 percent of respondents preferred the 0-100 scale for grading. If made to choose only one system, 86.1 percent of teachers said they would prefer a credit-based system.

Superintendent Cheri Towle said the survey “does not represent best teaching practices.”

“What it does represent is confusion on grading practices and a need to address the why behind our work yet again,” she wrote in an email. “This is not easy work but challenging work, and being clear with students on what they need to know and providing them multiple ways to learn is best practice.”

[Greater Bangor schools making it easier for students to earn diplomas]

Rand’s survey also asked if teachers supported the elimination of class rank, grade point average, and the valedictorian and salutatorian honors for the top-scoring students — all elements of a traditional credit system; 88.9 percent of teachers said no.

“It’s become increasingly difficult to explain our grading system to students and parents when it keeps changing,” science teacher Joanne Adair said.

In addition, Adair said, she has seen students settle for mere proficiency under the proficiency-based system instead of push themselves to excel.

“I don’t think that’s what I want to push my kids to do,” she said.

The results of Rand’s survey caught the school committee’s attention, and the committee voted to postpone a vote on the proposed policy changes.

“These percentages are staggering,” member Cindy Small said. “It’s worth looking at that.”

Rand and Adair said teachers’ opinions did not appear to factor into the proposed policy that came before the school committee. In the survey, 83.3 percent of teachers said they were not meaningfully included in the development of the policy proposal.

“I think the people that are working with these kids every day, the teachers, need to have a say in this,” Adair said.

There had been a forum for teachers that did not generate much feedback, according to Towle.

“Maybe we should have some of the staff weigh in to what they like and don’t like about proficiency-based education,” said John Canders, the committee’s vice chairman. “I would think that we’d want their opinions involved. They’re the ones teaching our kids.”



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