April 27, 2013

Maine public education's future, mass customized learning

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

For better or for worse — and there are people on both sides — education in Regional School Unit 18, and the state of Maine, will never be the same.

click image to enlarge

Karen Mayo, a fifth-grade teacher at the James H. Bean School in Sidney helps two students Jade Veillaux, 11, right, and Macey Eubank, 10, left, on Wednesday. James H. Bean is one school in the area that has implemented a mass customized learning program that integrates up to three grade levels in one classroom.

Staff photo/Michael G. Seamans

What is Mass Customized Learning?

The debate about mass customized learning is mired in words whose meanings are easy to lose track of — terms such as proficiencies, standards-based achievement, core curriculum, and essential skills can make it difficult to digest what the system is all about.

At its core, however, the idea is simple.

In the traditional classroom, all students are placed in a classroom with other students their own age, and they are taught the same thing at the same time. Everyone spends a certain amount of time learning addition, for example, and then moves on to subtraction.

Under mass customized learning, that traditional model is turned on its head.

Students instead are taught the information at their own pace, alongside other students who are also ready for that same piece of information.

After an addition lesson, those students who master addition move on to subtraction. Those students who can’t demonstrate that they have mastered addition keep trying until they learn it.

The approach, while simple, has huge consequences. Under the learning system, there is no need to grade students, because they either understand addition or they don’t. Students must master all of the necessary skills in the curriculum before they can graduate.

With the new focus on what an individual student knows, there is also no need to segregate students by age — the 7-year-olds who are great at reading will be reading with others at the same proficiency level, even those who are 9 or 10 years old. With students grouped by proficiency level instead of age, the entire concept of a single classroom holding a single grade of students becomes outdated.

A classroom using the new learning system has small, ever-shifting groups of students who travel from one teacher to the next to get the lesson that they personally are ready to learn.

The classroom might look different, depending on what is being taught.

In some mass customized learning classrooms, students work on individual computers, reading material and answering questions about what they’ve just read. Instead of feeding information to students from the front of the classroom, teachers circulate among the students, answering questions and making suggestions.

Students are encouraged to play a more active role in their own education by giving teachers feedback about what they don’t understand. In this model, the teachers and students discuss learning obstacles as partners, working together to identify and overcome problems.

Students still might take tests, but they’re not penalized for getting wrong answers to questions. Instead, the incorrect answers can lead to more conversations and interactions with the teacher, with a goal of figuring out what’s holding the student back.

For three years, the district, with schools in Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney, has been changing to an educational system called mass customized learning, also called standards-based, or proficiency-based, learning.

Under the system, this fall’s freshman class at Messalonskee High School will graduate in 2018 with a diploma, but the class members’ high school transcripts won’t include a grade point average.

Instead, the transcripts will tell colleges and prospective employers that the students are proficient in all the essential educational skills in the curriculum.

School administrators and the state say the new system is a long overdue step from the stone age to the digital age.

However, some parents and teachers have expressed concerns about the change, which includes a different grading system, curriculum and teaching process.

RSU 18 is one of six Maine districts that received state funding between 2009 and 2011 to pursue the learning system, which state education leaders hope to see fully implemented at all Maine public schools within a decade.

The others were Farmingdale-based Regional School Unit 2, Jackman-based Regional School Unit 82, Gray-based Regional School Unit 15, Waterboro-based Regional School Unit 57 and the Milford School District.

Mass Customized Learning

Linda Laughlin, the district’s assistant superintendent, has been overseeing the switch, which began in earnest this year at all of the district’s elementary schools and Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland.

Laughlin said the traditional school system has stood in the way of student achievement, a sentiment that is echoed in a statewide education plan created by the Maine Department of Education.

“It replaces the assembly-line structure, where everyone is grouped by their age and moved forward almost regardless, in some cases regardless, of their performance in the prior year,” she said.

Under the old system, Laughlin said, “you’re setting up this sort of remedial program, and if students don’t get it, they have to go back and learn it. That sends a message that there’s something wrong with them, and that’s not true.”

Instead, she said, “we’re recognizing that all students learn in different ways and different time frames and setting up a system that recognizes that.”

At the end of high school, students are better prepared, because they don’t miss any of the essential curriculum, Laughlin said.

“It’s not a matter of getting 70 percent of math or better,” she said. “It’s a matter of what is essential for every child to know and then not allowing them to graduate until they have them.”

Parent leaves district

Not all parents and teachers are embracing the system or the way it is being implemented at the district.

Some parents have spoken against the system repeatedly at public forums and in online discussion groups.

Kristen Bequeath said she loved Belgrade Central School and its teachers when her son, Austin, now 10, began attending.

A month ago, Bequeath pulled Austin from the school and enrolled him at Mount Merici Academy, a private school in nearby Waterville.

“We knew we had to do something drastic,” she said. “We knew this was going to be a wasted year for my son.”

Bequeath said the new system caused her son to be so far behind that he is now in fourth grade at the academy, instead of fifth grade at Belgrade Central.

“I’m realizing now how much he was behind with learning grammar and learning things like that,” she said. “There’s a lot missing in the meat of the curriculum. I’m really concerned.”

Bequeath said teachers are spread more thinly, which has resulted in students getting longer lunch periods and less valuable instruction time.

Laughlin said the schedule adjustments were necessary early on.

“What was happening was teachers and administrators were working to find time within the schedule to collaborate with each other and get better at learning this whole system,” she said.

Laughlin said that while there are cases in which students are getting fewer teacher hours, their time is still spent learning the curriculum.

“They have a reading buddy type of system where the kids spend time with each other with a peer reading kind of program,” Laughlin said.

Laughlin said “most parents” are comfortable with the system, “but because they are getting new reports and they are working with different teachers, it is different and new, and I know that makes parents nervous.”

Teacher concerns, which include an increased workload and lower teacher morale, have led to a series of ongoing meetings between the union and top administrators to try to solve the problems. The union has asked for the implementation to be slowed, but Laughlin has said it would be difficult to do so.

Parents split on grades

Compared to the traditional 100-scale grading system, the new reporting system is more nuanced, but also more difficult to understand, with a number between one and four appearing next to each of a long list of standards.

A three means a student is proficient in that particular skill, while a four means the student has exceeded expectations in that skill. A one or a two means that more work needs to be done to master the skill.

Bequeath said the information was difficult to interpret. 

“As a parent, when I get home, I see that he’s on pace,” she said. “That’s the new terminology. They’re on track for what they’re doing, but you have to really read into it.”

Another Belgrade parent, Chris Rhoda, has a daughter in Belgrade Central School and a son who’s scheduled to enter the school’s pre-kindergarten system in 2014.

Rhoda said he had concerns about the new system at first, because it represented such a big change.

“Change is scary,” he said. “It scares everybody.”

Now, he said, his daughter, Emily, 7, who reads at an advanced level, is “thriving” under the new system.

“In school, if she’s asked to read second-grade books, she’s going to get bored,” he said. “The last thing I want to see is her get bored in school.”

Rhoda said he prefers the new reporting system.

“For me, I really like the additional data that we get,” he said. “I can log in to a portal. I log in to it regularly, and I can see what my daughter has mastered, what she’s working on and what other goals she’ll be working on that year. If I choose, I can have discussions on the same things at home.”

Maine public education’s future

The course for mass customized learning has been set, both in the district and across the state.
In his strategic plan for the state, “Education Evolving,” Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen identifies proficiency-based learning as a successful future for Maine’s public school system.

The state plan is critical of the traditional approach to education, which it says “is standing in the way of success.”

The Maine Cohort for Customized Learning has representatives from 29 school districts throughout the state who are all working to develop the new curriculum.

Laughlin has been recognized as a leader by statewide education institutions. In 2012, she was given an Outstanding Leadership Award from the Maine School Superintendents Association at the Department of Education’s Commissioner’s Conference. 

She was nominated for the award by the Kennebec Valley Superintendents Association, which cited, among other things, her push to get mass customized learning off the drawing board and into classrooms.

While the data on long-term results for comprehensive mass customized learning systems might be lacking, Laughlin said, it was built from solid research on how to teach students best.

“When people say, ‘We’re guinea pigs; where’s the research?’ I can point to a number of studies that identify what is good instruction, curriculum assessment, grading and reporting,” she said. “We’re employing all of what is best practice.”

Collegiate success

A recurring concern of Bequeath and others is that the system is too new, and a student without a traditional grade point average will be at a disadvantage when applying to colleges.

“It has not been done and proven successful from what I have seen,” Bequeath said. “Colleges are not saying they’re accepting this.”

Frank Brown, president of the RSU 18 Education Association, said some of the teachers represented by the union share that concern.

“I’ve heard a lot of mixed reports about how colleges react to these things,” he said.

Laughlin said colleges are used to matching up different types of reporting systems, and that many colleges are making public statements that endorse mass customized learning.

“Colleges get different types of reports from different schools, and they have to decipher how to compare all of them,” she said.

The New England Secondary School Consortium, which represents high schools throughout the region, has encouraged colleges to sign a pledge “that applicants to our institutions with proficiency-based transcripts will not be disadvantaged in any way.”

Right now, 25 colleges have signed, including Thomas College in Waterville; the University of Maine and its affiliated campuses in Augusta, Farmington, Fort Kent, Machias and Presque Isle; the University of Southern Maine; the University of New Hampshire; and several community colleges and technical schools.

Laughlin said 20 more schools, including 17 from Connecticut, are about to be added to the list, which she said will continue to grow as more institutions recognize the advantages.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com

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