RSU 18’s Commitment To Proficiency-Based Learning Continues, As Does Education and Advocacy

In early 2012, the Maine Department of Education Center for Best Practice posted Ready, Aim ..., a case study of the Messalonskee School District (RSU 18) and their implementation of customized learning systems in their Oakland, Belgrade, China, Sidney and Rome schools.  In that case study, educators in the district discussed their journey over the past 10 years moving away from a traditional system of schooling.  Eighteen months later, we revisited the district, sitting with Assistant Superintendent Linda Laughlin to learn about RSU 18’s continued progress. The purpose of this piece is to present a follow-up to the original case study, describing the district’s continued efforts to implement proficiency-based learning systems.

Regional School Unit 18 envisioned its work as three phases.  Setting the direction and developing their vision, strategic plan and guiding principles was phase one.  The work of phase two was to create the structures and capacity to support the vision and strategic plan, a phase referred to as strategic alignment.  “Up until spring of 2012,” said Linda Laughlin, assistant superintendent of RSU 18, “we spent a lot of time developing an understand and strategic direction.  We continue to build an understanding of our vision.  Alignment work is much harder than developing the direction.”

One insight the leadership of RSU 18 had was the importance infusing the culture with a growth mindset.  Carol Dweck’s book Mindset has been key to RSU 18’s vision (and that of many others in the state).  The premise that intelligence is not a fixed attribute, but one that can grow and be acted up to grow in particular ways is the foundation of both student learning and teacher development.  Teachers and administrators “use a growth mindset approach, problem solving strategies, and invention reasoning” to redesign the RSU 18 system.  The district has shifted some of its professional development resources away from the techniques of learner-centered education and towards collaborative work among the staff.  “Our staff has gained a deeper understanding of our vision, and used our guiding principles as a guide,” Laughlin explained.

Part of their cultural work collaboration has been work across state lines.  They’ve connected with the Lindsay, Calif. school district – an early pioneer in high school level and district wide change – and they’ve worked with the New England Secondary School’s Consortium (of which the Maine DOE is a partner) and the League for Innovative Schools.  They have also hosted many visitors from all over the country and have used these visits as opportunities for reflection and improvement. Additionally, they’ve developed a “Basic Customized Learning” training for all incoming teachers (either new or from other districts) to take during their induction period.

Curriculum, Instruction and Reporting
The professional development plan for RSU 18 has been to create “capacity builders” within the district who serve as informal leaders to help bring the rest along.  The district has adopted an instructional model and a common language around instruction based in Robert Marzano’s The Art and Science of Teaching.  They’ve also implemented the curriculum structure of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, based in the Maine Learning Results and using Marzano’s scopes and scales as organizational structures.  Finally, RSU 18 has adopted a district-wide reporting system (Educate) which supports the faculty in implementing a learner-centered system.

The district continues to work with Bea McGarvey, and has brought in Debra Pickering, whose work in critical thinking and Habits of Mind was featured at a recent Maine Curriculum Leader’s Association meeting.  This has dovetailed with RSU 18’s participating in the Maine DOE’s Guiding Principles Performance Assessment work.  “Over the past year,” said Laughlin, “we developed a better understanding of how to teach our Habits of Mind curriculum.  Teachers are helping learners understand what these habits are and what strategies are used to develop them.  We are slowly learning how we will assess learner development of these habits.”

A big shift for the district has been the implementation of the curriculum in Messalonskee High School.  Over the past two years, RSU 18 shifted from encouraging small pilot projects, to implementing learner-centered systems preK-8.  This included a system-wide approach to instruction practices and curriculum, as well as a unified reporting system.  They’ve also redesigned structures (such as schedules) to allow for grouping and regrouping strategies so that students, at any time, can be addressing specific standards at the level that will best serve them.  “This year, the high school staff is implementing the curriculum of learning progressions, tracking learner progress of learning goals,” said Laughlin. “Freshmen are participating in five week seminars that address the learning goals they are ready to learn, using higher level critical thinking and community-based learning experiences.  About a dozen teachers have designed these project-based seminars.”

One area where the district feels additional work is required – along with work on the Habits of Mind – is in the area of student motivation.  The hope was that giving students voice-and-choice in educational decisions would lead to a dramatic increase in student motivation.  This has not proven to be the case (in other districts, as well).    “There is more that needs to be done to counter the compliance-type motivation that our learners have come to expect,” Laughlin explained.  “The district is working hard to understand motivational theory and to apply strategies that create the conditions that build intrinsic motivation.”

At the time of the original case study, Superintendent Gary Smith indicated that the district intended to wait on a some statewide bodies who were collaborating on policy work.  The New England Secondary School’s Coalition, the Maine School Management Association and the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning had all expressed the intention of collaborating on policy exemplars and guidance.  Even so, over the past two years the district has slowly been revising its policies to bring them in line with its strategic plan.  Most urgent is for the district to define what appropriate graduation requirements look like for the incoming freshman class of 2014 – the first class that will be graduating with a proficiency-based diploma.

Community and Communication
Implementing proficiency-based learning district-wide and in the high school has meant that the district had to educate and inform a much larger group of stakeholders than it had to previously.  Their original visioning process, by most standards was inclusive, involving dozens of stakeholders from all areas of the community.  But with the more widespread implementation, the district faced the challenge of pushback from some quarters.

There were a number of reasons for this.  Teachers who were implementing were facing their learning curve in the new system, just as the students were facing that curve.  This was frustrating to parents.  Additionally, the new grading software provided a level of transparency that parents had never seen before.  They could see how well their students were doing almost in real time.  This meant that the rough patches in the implementation were more visible than they otherwise might have been.

Part of the controversy was engendered by the ongoing controversy of the pace of implementation.  In the original case study, teachers and administrators talked about how there were always some in the district who felt that the implementation was going too fast while others in the district felt it was going too slow. That tension continues right up to the present day.

Though they may feel sometimes feel “beat up” by the controversy, administrators and board members – who remain unanimous in their support of learner-centered systems – recognize that the only remedy is to continue talking, advocating and educating.