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Proficiency-based Education FAQs

What exactly is PBE?

PBE requires that teachers are precise and strategic. (Plan with Purpose) They need to determine what students need to know, understand and do, and explain what success looks like. (Standards and Rubrics) Success hinges on giving students meaningful feedback in a timely manner and adjusting instruction accordingly for students who are not making progress. (Differentiation) It requires teachers to be responsive when students are not learning and give them targeted instruction and additional practice. (RtI) Finally, it requires teachers to communicate clearly with all stakeholders what the students know, understand, and do at the end of a teaching and learning process. (Standards-based Grades and Reports) It is the foundation of equity-based education because it supports a system that ensures all students learn. 

What does the data tell us about our shift to PBE?

Our data absolutely supports our shift to PBE, best exemplified by the high school where this shift increased our four-year graduation rate from approximately 78% at the outset to over 90% over the duration of implementation. On average, that means that each year 15 students earned their diplomas. At the same time, we continued to outperform the state average in all assessments and our low-mid student performers began to move to the center of the performance average. This means that struggling students who did not qualify for special education made greater gains through individualized, targeted instruction. Finally, our GPAs increased, with the highest gains being at the higher end of the average. This indicates to us that removing behavior, executive functioning skills, and virtue from grades and holding students accountable to the learning benefited all of our students, with our higher-performing students benefiting the most. Two years after implementation, student acceptance rates into all categories of colleges (community college out of state, community college in state, out of state public, out of state private, Maine public, Maine private, and ivy league) all increased. This success is reinforced by our continued acceptance into selective colleges. See our school profile for more information.


So why might students, parents, and teachers question whether or not PBE works?

For students, they want to be rewarded for their grit and strong work ethic and some believe that the solution is to distinguish themselves from their peers with higher grades. The problem with combining academic performance and habits of work is that it hides students' actual learning. For example, in the old model, it was impossible to know whether a B- in math indicated the student understood 80 percent of the concepts or the student understood little and padded poor test grades with copied homework and extra credit. Also, it was very possible a student would know 100% of the concepts but did not do the homework and as a consequence, lost 20-grade points and got a B-. 

For parents, it is so different from their own experiences where grades served as a commodity, something you were awarded instead of honest communication of what you knew, understood, and could do.

For teachers, it is much harder to teach in this way. Most of our teachers were not trained in this methodology. It also requires a greater degree of teamwork. Most embrace collaboration but some still long for the “close my door and let me teach” idea. And those who embrace collaboration, often find that due to our inequitable AOS structure, not all of our schedules support the time for this work. It would be much simpler to go back to a less transparent process with less student and teacher accountability and ignore the inequities of the district. The harder way is usually the right way. 

For the broader public, there is a belief that awarding students grades in the form of carrots and sticks will motivate students and teach them executive functioning skills. We know that this is not true. The research shows that students who want good grades are motivated by grades. Everyone else is motivated by being seen for their worth and engaged in meaningful learning experiences that are supported so that they can be successful. Further, grades don’t teach executive functioning skills. Teaching executive functioning skills teach executive functioning skills, which is another task we are asking all teachers to now explicitly do. Again, the expectations of teachers have now fundamentally changed.

How do we strengthen our PBE system?


We need to support the new High Impact Teaching (HIT) Framework and Professional Framework. Being clear on what the job now entails as we move forward is critical so we are all on the same page.

We need to streamline and strengthen communication with families. Parents are our partners. COVID has created distance between parents and our schools and we need to work to rebuild our partnership with them and strengthen our collective approach to educating our students.

We need to begin to review our standards and protocols and make adjustments. It has been ten years and we have learned so much that now needs to be reflected in our process. 

We need to strengthen our MTSS system. Every school has different resources and as such, we need to take a building-based approach.

We need to get better at coaching executive functioning skills. It is one of the many new responsibilities of the teaching job description that can not be outsourced.

We need to work to create schedules where collaboration can take place. Infrastructure absolutely matters and we need to consider creative ways to restructure it so that we can support what is required of the profession.

We need to acknowledge that the job as it stands is incredibly hard. What distinguishes a professional from a skilled worker is that we hire professionals to administer judgment. Administering judgment in education is particularly challenging because “students are not primitive creatures who respond only to reward and punishment. They are complex thinking, feeling beings with a natural curiosity that we must be careful not to extinguish. And learning is not merely a behavior–it is a complex mental process that is mediated by many factors and is unique in each child.”  (Rethinking Grading, Cathay Vatterott
We need to support teachers with the professional development they need to carry out this work.