Search form

How Proficiency-Based Education is Changing the Learning Landscape

All over the U.S., schools, school systems, and entire districts are implementing proficiency-based learning (PBL). As of summer 2019, 17 states have legislated comprehensive education policies in support of PBL, and another 13 are considered “developing” states, with flexible policies that allow schools the option to transition their teaching style to proficiency-based. 

It’s hard to grasp the significance of such a widespread phenomenon without first accepting a harsh truth: K-12 education in America has a whole lot of room for improvement. For a country that spends almost as much as any other on education, the results aren’t very impressive. Could it be because our approach to teaching is built on the faulty, fundamental premise of unfairly ranking and sorting our students? 

That’s what many experts in the field believe, and what PBL is seen as a remedy for. 

What exactly is proficiency-based learning, and why are so many schools adopting it?

A simple way of understanding the difference between traditional teaching methods and PBL -- also called mastery- or competency-based learning -- is this: for decades, we’ve concentrated on how much time students spent in school, with the ideal being 180 days per year for 13 years, preferably followed by college. 

PBL focuses instead on what students actually learn

If they’re gifted in a particular subject and pick it up quickly, they can demonstrate their mastery and move on -- no need to waste time in a desk listening to moot lectures. If mastery doesn’t come easily, support is immediately provided to make sure that the student has every opportunity to still gain the skill or knowledge in question.

In a traditional system, time in the classroom is guaranteed; learning isn’t. In a proficiency-based system, learning is guaranteed; the time spent is variable. 

More and more schools are open to making this shift for numerous reasons -- not least of which is that it works. It creates better outcomes for not just students, but also teachers and the schools themselves. 

Most importantly, though, the push toward PBL is happening because educators care. Teachers, administrators, education board members, and parents are all tired of watching taxpayer dollars poured down the drain only to have their students sorted into arbitrary buckets -- and implicitly labeled as unintelligent or unlikely to succeed. 

But do we know it works? 

M.S. 442 is a school in Brooklyn, NY that operates on the PBL model. However, the students there also take the normal slate of state-mandated standardized tests. After having used the proficiency-based model for only two years, nearly 30% of M.S. 442’s students were performing at prescribed state standards. Before the switch to PBL, less than 10% had been able to meet those same standards. 

The entire state of Maine provides another good example. After a state-wide transition to PBL, high school graduation rates have increased from 80% to 87%, and college persistence rates from 75% to 77%. 

But these are just the tip of the iceberg. Many other schools and districts around the country have shown equally promising results, and numerous countries including Finland, Scotland, and Norway use their own competency-based curricula to great success. 

What changes can we expect to come from this shift?

Some benefits of proficiency-based models are obvious -- like better outcomes for students, including increased graduation rates. Others are more subtle but equally significant. 

For one, colleges and universities will shift their admissions criteria to accommodate proficiency-based transcripts, instead of the traditional GPA + standardized testing scores model. This is already happening and shows signs of accelerating. Along with this will come a general move away from high-stakes standardized testing, as more and more educators and policy-makers understand just how inequitable they are. 

Since PBL creates a more flexible and enjoyable learning environment by putting students in the driver’s seat of their own educational experience, we’ll also see more teachers staying in the profession longer. This will be a welcome counter-trend to what has been happening in recent years.

Overall -- and perhaps best of all -- as we strive to reward students for their eagerness to learn on their own terms, instead of punishing them for it, we’ll unlock the unique potential in each one. And when all of us have the opportunity to be our best selves -- when we’re encouraged, rather than stifled -- then humankind as a whole is the benefactor. 

Written by Dr. Mark Siegel, Education World Contributing Writer

Mark Siegel is the Assistant Headmaster at The Delphian School and is a frequent speaker at education conferences to promote and advocate for proficiency-based learning and other progressive teaching models.

Copyright© 2019 Education World