Category: school

On Proficiency Based Education

I first really heard about Proficiency Based Education (PBE) the exact wrong way: by finding out my school was transitioning into it, and that it would be coming right away. That’s definitely on me. I know I must have read about the process in the past, but I just hadn’t paid any attention to it. There didn’t seem to be anything that I really needed to worry about, so I ignored it.

Perhaps you’re in the same boat I was. You see “Proficiency Based Education,” and you wonder what in the world it might mean. Allow me to explain.

In a nutshell, PBE moves students away from the traditional grading system (A, B, C, D, F, on a 1-100 point scale) and over to a 1-4 scale that’s based entirely around a student’s ability to show mastery of a subject. The school comes up with a number of different academic areas within each subject and in order to pass the class (get a 2.5 or higher), the student must demonstrate the ability to do that skill.

So imagine one subject area was “can tie their own shoes.” It’s pretty simple. Either the student can or the student can’t. For our district, a student would be rated on shoe tying as follows:

1: Can’t tie their own shoes at all.

2: Can tie their shoes if the teacher helps them.

3: Can tie their shoes by themselves.

4: Can tie other knots, not just shoe knots.

On the surface, there’s a lot about this system to like. The idea that each student can show mastery of individual subject areas is appealing. Each test covers a range of areas. A student might score a 2 on one part and a 3.5 on another part. Instead of having to retake the entire test, the student could just focus in on the part they were having trouble with. In the classic design, a student on that test might have gotten an 80%, but if you looked more closely, they had one area mastered to more like a 95% level, and another was just like a 70% level.

So in that manner, it’s more granular. Students can get a better idea of what they’re doing well in and what they still need help with. That’s a good thing.

The trouble arises in the application of this new grading system. A few years ago, the state of Maine mandated that all schools switch to PBE models by this coming January. It became law. And so our school began the process. Last year was the first year that the transition was completely made for Freshmen. Tomas encountered it then because he was taking Honors Algebra II at the high school, a year ahead of the rest of his 8th grade classes.

The transition was far from smooth. First of all, the messaging that went out to students was confusing. (At least, it was confusing by the time it reached me. I found out much of it at first through Tomas, until about halfway through the year, when I finally started going to meetings on my own to try and make sense of it. I think I missed out on the early meetings because they were aimed at parents of 9th graders, and I was the parent of an 8th grader. Or maybe I just spaced it. It might have been on me.)

Students were told again and again that “a 3 is a great grade.” The takeaway Tomas had from it was to shoot for a 3, and if he managed to get a 4 on something, great. But no big deal if he didn’t. As a parent used to traditional GPAs, a 3 meant a B, and I had a hard time with the concept that we’d all be shooting for B-level work. But Tomas repeated his “3 is a great grade” line often enough, that I began to believe it.

Until I went to meetings and discovered 4s were supposed to be attainable, and to get high honors, a student would need a 3.75 average or higher. Getting a 3.75 average means you’re getting 4s and 3.5s.

Then I started worrying what this would look like for college admissions boards. I was reassured that college admissions boards deal with PBE scales all the time, and it’s no big deal. Which makes sense on the surface. But it’s not the surface that matters here. It’s the underpinnings.

Because the actual application of this grading system has left a lot of parents and students scratching their heads. I get that some parents just blow off the question entirely, saying parents who worry about what college their kid will get into so early on are just being overly intrusive into their kids’ lives. Harvard or University of Maine? Big deal. Well, I suppose I’m guilty as charged.

I’m a BYU graduate. I love my alma mater, and I’d really like my kids to be able to go there. But getting into BYU isn’t a gimme. Yes, it’s got a 65.1% acceptance rate, which seems not too bad compared to Princeton’s 6.4% acceptance rate. But Princeton admitted 1,990 students last year, and 1,314 of them attended, a yield of 66%. BYU admitted 6,520, and 5,246 of those attended. A yield of 80.5%. What does that mean? It means that students who apply to BYU really want to go there. Badly. There’s a fair bit of self-selection that happens when students apply (or don’t apply) to BYU. It’s probably a topic for a different blog post, but suffice it to say getting in isn’t a cakewalk.

Which is to say grades mean something. Good grades mean something. And even setting aside my personal stake in the game, good grades mean something to our district. A district that produces students capable of going to top name schools is a district that attracts parents who want their children going to those same schools. This doesn’t mean we should have all our teachers grade easy, but it does mean we should be sure we’re grading accurately.

And that’s where my biggest frustration with PBE comes in so far. The difference between a 1, 2, and 3 is clear and distinct. It makes sense. But how exactly a student gets a 4 is much murkier than I’d like. I’ve since learned that each teacher is supposed to be very clear about how students can get 4s. What goes into it. And so this coming year I’m going to push to find that out as soon as I can, so that I can help Tomas succeed.

Because this isn’t about me. It’s about him. He wants to succeed. He wants to get into BYU as well.

This is all coming to a head because the state legislature just changed its mind about the PBE requirements. Suddenly, going to PBE isn’t mandatory anymore. And so the question arises: should our district stick with PBE or go back to the old way of grading? There are many teachers in the district that want to stick with it, because they feel it’s a better way of grading. There are some who would rather go back to the old way, because they felt it was fine.

Having read some of the back and forth around it all, I know there’s a whole bunch of parents who are very frustrated with PBE. They feel it doesn’t bring enough to the table to warrant the unrest. I personally lean that direction as well. I feel like PBE has potential, yes, but getting to that Promised Land will come with a price: we’re experimenting with a class or two or three of students, where teachers are learning the ropes at the same time as the students.

The result of this will be that we have some years of graduates who might suffer when it comes to college entrances. I don’t see any other way to put it. Teachers haven’t entirely figured out what makes a 3 vs a 4, and how to teach in a way that everyone can reach their full potential. That’s a problem.

Is it a problem that means we need to do away with PBE? I’m not sure. But I do believe we need to do something right away to fix this gap and make sure our best and brightest students aren’t harmed in the process. That might mean changing the messaging. That might mean developing clear communication channels for parents who are confused. That might mean having sit downs with parents and teachers to make sure everyone understands what’s what.

But I’ve heard of some teachers being very resistant to giving out 4s, and others giving them out more easily. That’s the exact sort of thing PBE was supposed to move away from, was it not? So if we go through all of this sound and fury and end up with another system that isn’t really that much different than where we started, it will have done nothing but harm.

I don’t want that. I don’t think anyone does. I’ve heard reassurances from the district that won’t happen, but the proof is in the pudding.

I suppose in the end I’m willing to give PBE another year. But if we do, I think the district should have very clear procedures in place to measure whether or not its working. Compare the grades of students pre-PBE with the grades post-PBE. Have they improved significantly? Are students, teachers, and parents happy with the results? I’d rather the district be surveying those groups and going forward based on facts and figures, not promises and hopes.

Because it isn’t the law anymore. So the question shouldn’t be “How do we implement PBE as best as possible,” but rather “What’s the best system for our students?”

Yes, we’ve already invested heavily into PBE. So what? It’s a sunk cost. We should ignore the time and effort already spent and make a decision based purely on what’s best for us now. Pretend all that money and time hadn’t been spent. Is PBE still the right choice?

And move onward from there.

Here’s hoping the journey only gets smoother . . .


Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Eighth Grade “Graduation”

Tomas had his eighth grade “graduation”/celebration event last night. I didn’t know too much going into it, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’m a staunch supporter of schools and teachers, and so not attending wasn’t an option, but I still wasn’t sure exactly what would happen there.

In the end, I’d have to say my reaction ended up being quite a bit more negative than I would have anticipated. I debated even writing up a response, but often I write blog posts to make sense of things myself, and so my hope is that by writing this, I can get a bit of a better handle on why I thought it wasn’t a good event and what might be done to change it.

On the surface, I can see the reasoning behind the celebration. Get all the eighth graders together, call out their names, and have them walk across the stage to get a certificate of completion. Sure, it’s about as meaningful as preschool graduation, but at the same time, making it through middle school isn’t easy, from a social perspective. It can bring some closure to the students’ experiences, and get them hyped for high school. (I suppose?) That in and of itself isn’t anything to get worked up about. It’s an hour long event. No big deal.

But at the same time, they also handed out awards to students. And this is where I began to get uncomfortable. They don’t tell any of the students ahead of time who might win an award, and they don’t really tell students what it takes to win an award at all. There are a slew of awards handed out. Each teacher of each subject gets to give at least a couple. Some areas gave out as many as 10 or 15, as I recall. It’s what took the bulk of the hour to do.

And the whole time they were doing it, I couldn’t help but do the math. There were around 150 students in the audience that evening. I’d guess there were about 50 awards given out (maybe less?). Some people got multiple awards. Some kids as many as five or six, I’d guess. So perhaps 30 of the students got an award. 20%. Which means that 80% of the students sat there the whole time, wondering if they might get an award, but ultimately getting nothing but the piece of paper that says they successfully finished eighth grade.

Which on the surface shouldn’t upset me, should it? I mean, I don’t believe in giving out awards to everybody. I’m all for recognizing hard work and effort. If everyone gets an award, then it’s about the same as no one getting an award.

But when the criteria for getting the awards are so fuzzy, things begin to blur. From an outsider’s perspective, it began to seem more and more like the teachers picked who would get the award for their class was by picking their favorite students in their class. Which, okay fine. Each teacher will have students they connected with more. Or who they felt really went above and beyond.

(And in case you think this is about me having sour grapes Tomas didn’t get an award, it isn’t. He got one. I’m proud of him, but still very uncomfortable with what went on.)

This is middle school. Rough times, indeed. And for 80% of the students, their night was taken up watching all sorts of other kids get picked over them. And the whole time, they might have been thinking, “Maybe this award will be one I get.” Because they weren’t all even academic. There were awards for PE, School Spirit, Most Improved, Art, Health, Community, and more.

That’s a lot of rejection to get in one evening, in my opinion.

How could this be changed? Well, they might switch things around to recognize groups of students. “Students who got an A in Science, please stand.” “Students who played a sport, please stand.” “Students who were on the robotics team, please stand.” The criteria there would be much clearer, so kids wouldn’t feel like they were losing anything or getting passed over for anything, and yet the ones who made extra effort in areas could still be recognized.

On the other hand they could also make it an invitation event, where students who won an award are invited to attend with their families. Then at least every student who’s there knows they’re winning something, and the “rejection” of the other students isn’t as obvious.

They could still hand out the awards, but do it when they send out report cards. So the student knows they did well, the parents do too, and yet there’s no public shaming of the ones who were passed over.

I think the evening was supposed to be a celebration. A last chance for teachers to recognize students. But because of the way it’s organized, it turns into a last chance for 80% of the students to leave middle school with a bitter feeling. “I thought Mr. _______ liked me a lot, but I guess he didn’t like me enough to give me an award.”

Once again, this is my personal feeling. It’s not based on any discussion I had with any middle schooler. They’re just the thoughts I had running through my head during the awards, and hours after. I wonder if I was the only person thinking them.

In the end, I’m just not convinced the price of the event (hurt feelings for 80% of the class) is worth the reward (recognizing the other 20%).

What do you think?


Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

One Vote to Rule Them All

I blog about the school budget a fair bit. Okay, a ton. And some of you are no doubt sick and tired of hearing about me prattle on about the topic.

Boy, do I have a deal for you.

If you go out and vote to APPROVE the budget TODAY, then I won’t blog about the school budget again until next year. How’s that sound for a deal? Last year we had to do this vote about . . . four times? Three? I lost count, between all the meetings and referendums. Sometimes we had to vote no. Sometimes we had to vote yes. It was an absolute nightmare, and it really strained our entire community in a very unpleasant way.

We can avoid all of that if everyone who finally turned out to show their huge support of the schools last year turn out right now. Today. To vote YES on the budget.

It’s true that the budget has gone up this time. It should. We’re falling woefully behind, and our students are feeling the impact of this. I’ve blogged about the topic (at length). Anyone who tries to start arguing that our budget is bloated and full of fluff isn’t someone who’s taken a realistic look at the cost to educate students in the modern day. We can have a discussion about who should foot the bill (the state vs. local tax payers), or what the state mandate should be for various pieces of education (special education costs, etc.), but the bottom line of that bill as it stands today isn’t really up for debate in my book. All those other conversations are separate, and should be handled in a different forum.

Today, vote yes. Approve the budget with one vote, and let’s be done with it.


Poll times are as follows:

Chesterville – 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Industry – 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.
New Vineyard – 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Temple – 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Weld – 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Farmington – 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.
New Sharon – 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Starks – 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Vienna – 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Wilton – 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.


Confession time: I’ve worked at my university for more than ten years, and Saturday was the first time I’d ever attended graduation.

There have been many reasons why I didn’t go, ranging from family crises to just plain laziness. It seemed like something ancillary to what I did. I didn’t really have any strong connections to any of the students, did I? Not like they would have with their professors. I didn’t even go to my Library Science graduation. Why should I go to someone else’s?

So what persuaded me to go to this one? Some of it was my new role as Library Director, certainly. I felt like the library has a part in student lives, and it would be good for students to see a representative from the library at this, the most important last step of their schooling. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think my presence there made any students tear up or anything like that. I’d honestly be surprised if any students really noticed I was there. (Well, except for the part where they asked university staff to stand up, and I was like the only staff person in a twenty person radius of seated people . . .)

If anything, I think it was important to me to go to the ceremony. It had a bigger impact on me than I expected, certainly. Because as much as I liked to tell myself I hardly knew any of the students, when I was watching them go across the stage and get their diplomas, I was surprised to see just how many of them I did know. Students I’d taught in the graduate program. Students who had worked at the library. Students I’d played Magic with over the years.

And then of course there were the other members of the university in attendance. The professors, administrators, fellow staff. It was moving to see so many people I know and work with day to day gathered to celebrate. After all, the whole reason we exist is to do what we did on Saturday: to take in students and send out graduates. It’s a very rewarding feeling, seeing so much success gathered in one spot.

So will I be going back to graduation? Without a doubt. Not just because the library should be represented, but because I’d like to experience that same thing again. It’ll be a great reminder on days when I’m feeling pulled in a hundred directions, overworked and exasperated. A reminder for why I do all that I do. Paychecks are definitely a big part of why I work, but I’m very grateful for the reminder Saturday that they’re not the only reason I work there.

Congratulations, Graduates!!


Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Crunching the School Budget Numbers (Again)

Like many of you locals (I assume), I read the latest round of budget proposals and felt a fair degree of shock. After all was said and done, the final proposed school budget ended up being $35.5 million, up $200,000 or so from the figure I used for my last round of analysis. And you’ll recall at that point that I cited how yes, the budget was going up, but it was more or less a return to where things had been back in 2015, and that the last two years had seen budget decreases for area towns.

Still, $200,000 is far from nothing, and the article in the Bulldog paints a bleak picture:

The budget would result in a 6.25 percent increase in local assessments. Specifically, Chesterville would see a $116,428 increase to $1.05 million, or 12.4 percent; Farmington would see a $248,819 increase to $4.77 million, or 5.5 percent; Industry would see a $104,147 increase to $924,000, or 12.7 percent; New Sharon would see a $48,311 increase to $1.05 million, or 4.8 percent; New Vineyard would see a $42,515 increase to $743,000, or 6.1 percent; Starks would see an $83,029 increase to $463,000, or 21.8 percent; Temple would see a $6,129 increase to $425,000, or 1.5 percent; Vienna would see a $36,470 increase to $722,000, or 5.3 percent; Weld would see a $60,815 increase to $524,000, or 13.1 percent; and Wilton would see a $46,227 increase to $2.82 million, or 1.7 percent.

Some towns are seeing increases of up to 21.8%? That’s steep by any definition of the word. True, some of that is out of the school district’s hands. It rests on how the state values each town, which goes up or down each year, depending on a number of factors. But I really began to wonder if the school board hadn’t finally gone too far.

And yet I recalled from earlier research that our district is very much on the low end of how much we spend per pupil. The school board was saying this new budget is bringing vitally needed services to our district. Could it be this is simply just taking us back to where we need to be?

So I crunched some numbers, my favorite school budget pastime. And I found what the per pupil spending was for our school district as of December 1, 2017, and I compared it to all the neighboring school districts (since budget hawks often cite the poor economy of our area as the reason for why our budget should be low). Here’s what I found:

School District State Ranking (240 total) Per Pupil Spending
RSU 78 (Rangeley) 35th $16,325
RSU 10 (Rumford) 44th $15,290
RSU 59 (Madison) 93rd $12,659
RSU 74 (New Portland) 112th $12,135
RSU 58 (Phillips) 116th $12,000
RSU 38 (Mount Vernon) 119th $11,984
RSU 54 (Skowhegan) 130th $11,715
RSU 73 (Jay) 159th $11,041
Fayette 169th $10,876
RSU 18 (Rome) 170th $10,846
RSU 9 (Farmington) 177th $10,711

That, my friends, is pitiful. Our school district was dead last among all its immediate neighbors. It’s a sign of the budget crunch we’ve been under for the last several years, as a group in the district has expressed outrage at the current cost of educating students in our society.

So what will the new budget do to these numbers? Shoot us straight to the top, right? With all that unbridled spending? Well, I crunched those numbers, too. Assuming our per pupil spending is increased 5.68% (the total increase of the budget), we end up at $11,319, which would shoot us up to just above Jay, if Jay didn’t increase its budget one penny this year.

But actually, it’s worse than that. As I noted last time, we’ve added 75 students this year, so the money we’re putting into the district gets split among more students. Taking that into account, our per pupil spending will end up at $10,959. Just above Fayette. (Again, assuming Fayette and RSU 18 don’t increase their budgets at all.) I would not be surprised at all if we’re still dead last, even after this budget increase.

I’m not trying to say this budget increase is nothing. But the cost to educate students has gone up across the board in our country, for a variety of reasons. Some like to say, “We did just fine with a piece of chalk and a chalkboard in my day.” Sure, but little things like the internet change all that. Compare the environment our children face today, from smart phones to school shootings, and trying to insist things still be done as they were fifty years ago is foolhardy.

Our students deserve better, and that’s why I’ll be voting to support this school budget, and I hope you do too. The budget meeting to vote to approve this budget is May 7th at 7pm at the high school. That’s where we’ll need to show up and vote in person. It’s where budget hawks have tried to pack the meeting before to slash the budget, and it’s vital we get a good turnout. (Even more vital, as I’ll be unable to attend. I’ll be at National Library Legislative Day in Washington DC that day, trying to convince our senators and representatives to continue to fund libraries at a national level.)

Assuming the budget is approved at that meeting, we’ll then all need to vote May 15th in our town offices to finally approve that budget. Plan accordingly, and stay tuned . . .


Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

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