As goes Maine so goes Vermont: Our proficiency-based grading debacle

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Curtis Hier, a 33-year high school teacher and the president of the Vermont Alliance for the Social Studies.

After Maine lost its bellwether status in 1936 by leading only Vermont in supporting Alf Landon, FDR campaign manager James Farley quipped: “As goes Maine, so goes Vermont.”

Unfortunately, the saying has more than one meaning. Vermont is currently following Maine down the “proficiency” path in public education. No more grades as we’ve known them. Instead we would have a proficiency-based system.

It is a model favored by the Maine-based Great Schools Partnership, funded largely by Bill and Melinda Gates. GSP is a 501(c)(3), elected by no one and accountable to no one.

The local education leaderships grabbed onto this model in the name of Vermont’s Education Quality Standards, and even less accurately, Act 77. Members of these local education bureaucracies have misled the public, including teachers, into thinking that Montpelier was requiring this version of proficiency-based grading.

This Great Schools-Gates model is the 1-4 model. Homework is formative and doesn’t count. Summative assessments (quizzes and tests) can be retaken. Projects have extended deadlines. Content is not a priority.

Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Curtis Hier: “Our schools are preparing students for college, the workforce, and the military. The practice of not counting homework, giving extended deadlines for papers and projects, and allowing retakes on quizzes and tests does not prepare students for any of these three pursuits.”

Administrators from around the state made a pilgrimage to Casco Bay, a Portland lottery school built by Gates in 2005 that is held up as the model proficiency-based grading school. Administrators received some training. But they’ve never taught a day using PBG. Nevertheless, their enthusiastic opinions were eagerly sought at a recent State Board of Education public hearing.

And the administrators are wrong. The new system is disastrous.

The qualitative research is in. A Vermont NEA survey indicated that 72 percent of actual classroom teachers think PBL is demotivating. A brave teacher who spoke at the Board of Education hearing on behalf of as many as 70 percent of Rutland High School’s teachers said the PBG system creates “significantly more apathy and mediocrity in the classroom.”

There appears to be no research that directly supports this model. No research indicates the Great Schools Framework is particularly effective. No research indicates a 1-4 grading scale is superior. No research indicates extended deadlines fosters more disciplined work habits. The most compelling research on homework to date comes from a Duke 2006 meta-analysis that indicates a positive correlation between homework and student achievement.

Our schools are preparing students for college, the workforce, and the military. The practice of not counting homework, giving extended deadlines for papers and projects, and allowing retakes on quizzes and tests does not prepare students for any of these three pursuits.

The GSP-Gates model is demotivating certainly because of not counting homework, allowing extended deadlines, and offering retakes. But also because it is so confusing. It’s almost impossible to explain to students how their grades are computed. Some proficiencies get assessed many times, some once or twice, some not at all. The ones that get assessed many times decay. The grading system is like a convoluted Rube Goldberg contraption. Students don’t understand it, so they don’t know whether it’s worth it to make an extra effort.

Research does show that students do better when they know what’s expected of them, but showing them dense rubrics with language-tortured proficiencies just makes their eyes glaze over. A group of students representing the Rutland High School Student Senate issued a statement at the Board hearing that said: “We believe we got the same amount of feedback in the old system compared to this new one through four grading system.”

Nobody knows what a 3 is exactly. Is it an 85? An 88? A 90? It’s proficient. So teachers give lots of them. And many students seem content with them.

The past few decades have seen quite a few fads in education come and go. Like open space classrooms. It was supposed to promote collaboration, but teachers were finally driven to distraction and erected bookshelves and crates, anything to block out other classes. Dividers went up, and soon rooms were evident.

Whole language reading instruction in the early grades left high school teachers facing a string of students over a span of several years who could not spell. They were casualties of the reading wars.

But this is far worse. It’s discouraging our top students. And it’s rewarding other students for bad habits.

Today’s buzzword in education is “equity.” Does PBG promote equity? Absolutely. Flattening out the grade scale will give students with low income parents scores close to those of students with high income parents. But standardized tests will likely continue to show an achievement gap.

This is one more reason to support school choice. Schools such as Rice and MSJ are touting their traditional grading systems. Our students need an escape hatch from our monolithic and Gates-dominated local public school leaderships.

Maine is abandoning this disaster. We should too.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

12 thoughts on “As goes Maine so goes Vermont: Our proficiency-based grading debacle

  1. With all due respect to Mr. Hier, while I agree with some of his assertions, I disagree with most others. For example, if 72% of the NEA think Proficiency Based Learning (PLB) is demotivating, why don’t they admit that the public-school monopoly in which they work is even worse? If studies on this subject are relevant, why no mention of research on Self Determination – i.e. School Choice??

    “An enormous amount of research shows the importance of self-determination (i.e., autonomy) for students in elementary school through college for enhancing learning and improving important post-school outcomes.”

    Recent research indicates that “self-determined students were more likely to have achieved more positive adult outcomes including being employed at a higher rate and earning more per hour than peers who did not possess these skills.” (Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 1997).

    “…the more students were externally regulated the less they showed interest, value, and effort toward achievement and the more they tended to disown responsibility for negative outcomes, blaming others such as the teacher.”

    Mr. Hier’s missive is yet another example of the pot calling the kettle black. It’s the same politicization we see in Act 46 consolidation – Local School Boards competing with the State Board of Ed. for control of the State’s massive education purse strings.

    There is only one education reform worth discussing on a societal level, and that’s School Choice. Parents and their children should be able to listen to Mr. Hier, Bill and Melinda Gates, or anyone else with education credentials and choose the program that best meets their children’s needs. And if their first choice doesn’t work, they should be allowed to choose another. After all, it’s not just the specific pedagogy that’s important, it’s the act of choosing, of being internally regulated, autonomous, and self-determined, that motivates our children, whatever the education program they choose.

  2. Next comes “the attendance is optional” model followed by eliminating the need for a formal education. Just let the kids learn from the school of hard knocks. Will this insanity ever end????

    • Playing the devil’s advocate … can you tell me how do you define ‘attendance’? Attend what? …when? …where? Can home schooled kids have optional attendance? And just what are the ‘knocks’ in your version of the school of ‘hard knocks’?

      I know that you know what you mean by these terms, opinions and perspectives. And I suspect you may be spot on for certain kids. But I may have a different and demonstrably more successful program in mind. Shouldn’t I be allowed to follow my own drummer? Or are you suggesting I be restricted to your program and point of view? …the same way the State restricts me today?

  3. Vermont threw a lot of Monet at “ education”, has highest spending per student, and has poor outcomes.
    That is called malfeasance.


    Vermont should go back to it and close down the State Department of Education.
    Those folks can do something else for a living, in not Vermont, then elsewhere.

    • Unfortunately, it was local control that got us into this fix in the first place. Local school boards dominated by special interest groups. You know who they are. Parents with the time and resources to get elected, who want the schools to teach their children the way they see fit. Teachers from adjacent school districts. Retired teachers. Their family members. Other government workers. My wife and I both served on local school boards. Conflict of interest was rampant in my district for years while student performance declined, and costs increased. Annual school meetings were nothing short of a ‘kangaroo court’.

      Then the State stepped in with Act 46 consolidation. But its still the same actors. The teacher’s union and other special interest groups. There is still no market accountability. It’s still a monopoly, whether controlled by a local board or the SBOE.

      There’s only one true ‘local control’. And we can’t all run for the school board to get it. True ‘local control’ is parental control. That’s School Choice.

      • Jay,

        School choice is exactly what is needed.
        The State Department of Taxes pays $10,000 per student to the school, parents pay the rest.

        Parents with some money immediately ignore zoo-like public schools and enroll their children in Montessori, and other private schools.

        My sister, coming to the US in 1955, went to register her children at a public high school.

        He immediately recognized it as a ZOO, and took her children to a nearby Montessori school.

        One graduated from Hopkins (doctor in cardiology), became a research cardiologist, the other (MS Rutgers Engineering), became a computer systems consultant, both on full scholarships.

        Obama, Clinton, Biden, etc., ALL SENT THEIR CHILDREN TO PRIVATE SCHOOLS.

        • Even if we pay $15,000 per student, property taxes will decline by 25%… and student outcomes will improve.

          Give the parents an Education Savings Account (ESA). If they can spend less than the $15K allotment, let them save the money, tax free, to pay for post secondary education, be it college or vocational programs.

          Willem, I’ve said it before.. and I’m hoping you don’t write off my sentiment in this regard… School Choice is the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT social reform available to us that supports our American way of life. No other reform is more important than School Choice.

          • Jay,
            We are on the same page.
            Remember the cost saving of closing down State Department of Education.

            That money goes into fund to be disbursed by the Department of Taxes to parents to send their children to private schools.

            Give parents an ESA?
            That sounds like nanny state, Socialism lite.

            No, the state does not do the giving.
            Parents set those up themselves, at birth of a child or before, as part of their financial planning for their children’ future.

  4. Well the Bill Gates model of education follows his model of programming. He spend his years ‘doing it over’ and Windows still doesn’t work and isn’t secure — All of which the people at IBM who actually had to get good grades to be hired told us back in the early 1990s.

    Gates refused to fix the initial design. A man with that kind of thinking should never be followed no matter how much anyone thinks he is great.

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