District-level Competency Education Implementation in Maine

Published:

By Jesse Moyer

A while back, I wrote about a study that examined the implementation of the proficiency-based (or competency-based) diploma system in Maine. That study focused on school-level implementation. The same folks published another study that focused on district-level implementation in the state. I am going to quickly run through benefits, challenges, and recommendations in the study because I think the overarching challenges identified are most interesting.

Benefits:

  •  Improved student engagement
  • Continued development of robust interventions systems for struggling students
  • Collaborative professional work to develop common standards, align curriculum, and create assessments
  • Collective and transparent monitoring of student progress and needs by educators, administrators, and families

Challenges:

  • Developing clear, common definitions of key system components
  • Local implementation practices consistent with intentions of legislative policy
  • Building parent understanding and support for the new practices
  • Creating job-embedded, sustained professional time for collaboration
  • Understanding the unique needs and approaches of various grade spans or developmental levels, especially the stages of early childhood, the high school level and the population of students with identified special education needs
  • Developing comprehensive, sustainable learning management systems
  • Finding resources to assist with the predicted cost increases
  • Preparing students for post-secondary systems, specifically college and career readiness

Recommendations:

  • State should provide greater guidance in developing common definitions, and greater consistency in standards and assessments
  • State should continue to develop the technical assistance plan it outlined in the law and expand their assistance to include more support for district-level professional development
  • State should take a greater leadership role in helping school districts develop and implement learning management systems that support a proficiency-based system
  • Consider establishing an expanded system for continuous monitoring of both the Maine Department of Education and individual districts as implementation continues

As I said, the overarching challenges are most interesting to me. The first overarching challenge is systems thinking, specifically making sure you pay attention to all elements of the system and how they interact with each other as you’re working to improve the system as a whole. In systems thinking terms, this is called a crisis of fragmentation. The video below does a great job of explaining what the crisis of fragmentation is. This is tricky though. Because while this crisis is very real, there is also a system thinking axiom that says in order to optimize the system, you are required to sub-optimize some or all of the parts of the system. Vice versa, if you optimize the parts of the system, you are guaranteed to sub-optimize the entire system. So, my question is, are people willing to sub-optimize the parts of the system for the betterment of the whole system? This is a pretty difficult question, eh?

The other overarching challenge involves governance, specifically the local control culture in Maine leading to each district being tasked with defining their own competencies and creating their own curriculum and assessments aligned to those competencies. This creates huge discrepancies from district to district about what a high school diploma actually means. The report suggests a Dutch higher education governance model called “steering from a distance” to remedy this (you can learn more on page 7 of this report). Sorry to say, I am no expert on Dutch higher education governance but I will certainly be investigating this model more deeply in the future.

As both MERPI studies report, there are a lot of good people doing a lot of good work on the ground in Maine to advance the proficiency-based model. There continue to be significant challenges to this work and I look forward to continually monitoring, and learning from, these great edu-innovators.