Teacher finds ‘experimental nature’ of proficiency-based learning concerning
LEWISTON — While parents and teachers are raising serious questions about how proficiency-based education is working in Maine, they also question where it came from – and how it has been funded in some school districts.
Lewiston fourth-grade teacher Emily Talmage said she began looking into the origins of the program about three years ago when she was told there wasn’t enough money to pay for additional teachers even though class sizes were growing.
When she requested a copy of the school district’s budget, she discovered that additional money was needed for professional development so teachers could learn about proficiency-based education.
“I have a master’s degree in special education and developmental psychology,” she said. “I never once ever heard that term. So that’s what sparked my journey.”
State lawmakers in 2012 passed a bill to require schools to begin issuing high school diplomas by 2021 based on student proficiency in eight areas. But the state left it up to the districts to figure out the best way to do it, leaving students, parents and some teachers confused and frustrated.
Talmage described the implementation of the new system as “trying to build a plane as we fly it.”
“I feel like most parents don’t know what it is at all,” she said. “The biggest thing is the experimental nature of it.”
Supporters of the proficiency-based learning system say it has worked well in some districts, including Regional School Unit 2, based in Hallowell. The district was working to adopt the system even before the state required it, and despite initial pushback from parents, Superintendent William Zima credits the program with an ability to better meet the needs of all students.
“Retention is a failed policy,” Zima said. “Social promotion is a failed policy. So, social progression with remediation is the thing that I find that works.”
The concerned parents question how the state’s Department of Education and state legislators could have adopted such a major change without evidence that the system worked in other states. Part of their concern is that money to implement proficiency-based learning has come from out of state, via the Massachusetts-based Nellie Mae Education .
Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates gave $2.4 million to Nellie Mae from 2010-2016, and millions more was awarded to Maine-based groups to implement proficiency-based learning, including schools and the Maine Department of Education, according to tax filings by the foundation. All told, more than $13 million has come in to Maine from Nellie Mae to support the new system in public schools.
In addition to that funding, the state has earmarked more than $8 million in funding to help districts implement the system, according to the Maine Department of Education.
Sen. Brian Langley (R-Ellsworth), who sponsored the original bill to create the new diploma system and current chairman of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, said his school district is thriving with the new system. He rejects the contention by parents that out-of-state money somehow drove the changes.
“If somebody’s looking to try to hang this on some mysterious conspiracy theory, on money from out of state, no that’s not it,” Langley said. “We’re just looking for better outcomes for kids.”
The roots of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation stretch back to 1990, when the student loan financing organization Nellie Mae Corporation created a nonprofit “pioneering philanthropy in the student loan industry,” according to its website.
The foundation has net assets of more than $487 million, according to its financial statements filed with the IRS in November 2017. And while its mission has changed over the years, it’s consistently supported “student-centered learning models” since 2010.
Following Talmage’s lead, Auburn parent Laura Garcia has now spent weeks looking through financial records and researching how proficiency-based learning came to Maine. She’s spoken to her local superintendent, school board, legislators and the governor’s office, hoping to get some traction on the idea that maybe Maine shouldn’t be a leader in a new type of education system.
“There’s enough turmoil in enough school districts across the state that there needs to be an honest conversation with legislators, the Department of Education and the governor’s office,” Garcia said. “Was this a well-thought-out plan or was this an attempt to secure funding for something that looked like it had potential?”