Will a lack of funding doom proficiency-based education?

It makes me angry that programming in the arts, languages, social studies, physical education, technical education, and even recess has been reduced for a decade in American schools in the name of increasing academic achievement and we have little to nothing to show for it. Our students are basically doing no better academically than they were doing at the start of the century. As Sarah D. Sparks reported in Education Today Nearly a decade of America’s test-based accountability systems, from “adequate yearly progress” to high school exit exams, has shown little to no positive effect overall on learning and insufficient safeguards against gaming the system.

This means that while we have experimented on our students by imposing a program based largely on testing mania, students have not received the boost they needed to the much-touted 21st century skills of creativity, collaboration, problem-solving, intercultural competence that studies in the arts, languages, tech ed, and social studies foster. Additionally, instead of striving to combat obesity and lethargy in our youth, our physically-challenged society is at risk of raising another generation of couch potatoes.

We have a tendency to jump on the latest bandwagon when it comes to addressing problems in education, and many schools stay on the bandwagon even after results are known to be inferior. Finally the testing bandwagon is showing signs of developing dangerously wobbly wheels that even the slowest of school leaders cannot help but notice – thanks to the potholes of cheating scandals and repeated reports of flatlined test scores. At this point I think we all agree we did not improve education by narrowing the curriculum in our schools to literacy and math. Will we learn from this egregious mistake?

Currently the nation is pouring huge amounts of funding and energy into developing proficiency-based education. Many argue this is the latest education bandwagon – one that will eventually be discarded. For this (and other) reasons lots of  districts are taking their time implementing the new system and have in fact applied for extensions, the most jaded planning to wait, believing the new system will bite the dust.

Most people have yet to be convinced that standards-based education – where students are allowed to advance according to individual timetables but must eventually achieve proficiency in the eight core subjects before graduation – is manageable on a large scale by real teachers and students in the real schools we have. The proof of this will be in the pudding. However almost everyone  respects the beliefs at the core of this new system – that a diploma should mean something clear in terms of achievement and that students mature at different rates and along various pathways.

I do hope this movement will prove successful,  and in my own field of World Languages much work has been done in the state of Maine – with the help of the World Languages specialists at the Department of Education in concert with ACTFL (the American council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) – to train teachers in best practices designed to bring students to a satisfying proficiency level, where they will have actually mastered enough language to communicate with native speakers successfully. This will in fact be a game-changer in terms of intercultural competency for students growing up in Maine.

The state must remember, however, that a big part of its job is to provide adequate funding to municipalities so they can implement the new system set into law by the legislature. The cost to municipalities is in staffing, for there needs to be enough staff  for the programs that will allow teachers to educate students to reach proficiency levels – without these the standards-based movement  risks ending in the discard pile along with the testing bandwagon. A lack of funding will be the surest way to doom the proficiency-based movement.


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Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.