Thursday, November 23, 2017

PBE part two - The Gist of the Problem

For those whose states haven't yet been jumping on this bandwagon, what is PBE?  PBE is short for Proficiency-Based Education, sometimes called Standards-Based Education (SBE).

The gist of PBE is that education should be structured around knowing and understanding the Big Ideas, being able to do and perform those Important Skills, becoming students who learn and retain because they understand what the school was teaching.

There are several things that have pushed this initiative; most of the concerns are with the fact that so many kids seem to drift through high school (and especially HS math) without actually retaining anything. Of course, many students passed because they deserved to, because they understood the material and were ready for the next level. On the other hand, students have also "passed" by:
  1. being good at only a few topics but their average was above a 60.
  2. sitting like a lump and getting passed on. "It's all about Seat Time."
  3. bringing a pencil everyday, always handing in homework (even if they didn't actually learn anything from it) and having good attendance. "She's a GOOD kid."
  4. expending "Great Effort". "He really tries HARD."
What other problems were there with "traditional methods"?
  1. Courses are comprised of a few Big Ideas and a lot of filler that has gathered in the margins over the years. Reformers argue that we should focus on those Big Ideas instead of on the filler.
  2. What's so special about 120 hours of class-time? What if a kid needs 135 or only 80 to master the material? Reformers ask why every class goes for 180 days, 45 minutes a day.
  3. Teachers giving some kids a passing grade allowing them to move on to Algebra Two, just to get rid of him or to allow him to graduate.
  4. You don't measure understanding of a concept by simple repetition of a question. 
  5. Percentages are more precise than accurate. 
  6. Fine-grained reporting leads to a "Horse-Race" mentality in students and parents. "I'm better than you by a point." 
  7. Marking a question as 4 points out of 5 is less informative than a comment or some type of written feedback.
  8. Learning is a process that shouldn't be measured only once. Practice shouldn't be included in the grade, especially if the student had help.
Some of these claims are bogus, of course. Most are not.

Let's be honest here. There are a lot of adults who walk into meetings who begin by saying "I was never very good at math." There are memes aplenty that laugh at us math teachers saying "I've never had to factor a trinomial in my career. Everything I've ever done was done with 7th grade math."

Students have their own version of this game, "When am I ever gonna have to use this?" and then they promptly shut down if the answer doesn't fit into their narrow view of their future life and career.

Reformers claim, "Clearly something isn't working."

Despite the fact that the most important problems that exist in traditional education won't be solved by switching to PBE, the switch is worthwhile in my view.

The most important problem is that someone has to subjectively measure the student's performance.
This has been the problem for centuries and it won't change. There are so many ways that this judgement can be altered, massaged, changed, or mangled.

Every teacher knows it.
  • "Why did you give that grade to my kid?"
  • "You can't fail a kid if you didn't contact the parents."
  • "She didn't deserve that grade. She worked so hard."
  • "Do you really want him back in your class for another year? He's taken this same course two times already."
  • "If I fail this class my parents are going to kill me."
  • "Did you tell his parents every week that he wasn't doing his work? I don't see any record of this in the contact log."
  • "What are you going to do to help him pass?"
  • "Why didn't you assign him to afterschool help?"
  • "My son was always the best in his class in math, until he had you."
  • "I looked at her test. She should have gotten full credit on this question, and that one isn't wrong. You have to give him a 90."
  • Sometimes it's less subtle: "I'm gonna break your fucking arms if you fail my son. He only needs this one fucking math credit to graduate. I know where you live. I'm going home to get my gun."
These problems remain, no matter the system.

Under PBE, however, we have an opportunity to reframe education. We're going to measure only what they know, and focus on the Big Ideas.
  • Random quizzes on the way to understanding don't count. Only understanding counts.
  • Homework that was done with other people's help doesn't count. Only understanding counts.
  • The "Gentleman's C" is no longer a thing.
  • "Pity points" is no longer a thing.
  • "Extra Credit" is meaningless.
  • A 90% on Order of Operations can't mask a 50% on linear functions.
  • No more marks of 89.5% being considered "better" than 89%.
  • No averages of 60.001% just to allow a student to pass.
Can we do it?


or maybe not.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

PBE part one - getting started

This is the first of several posts about PBE, Proficiency-Based Education. I am trying to set down my understandings and beliefs, give some advice from my (very) limited experience, and lay a groundwork for improving what we're doing in my school and in my state of Vermont.

I plan to discuss what I think my school is doing right, what I think they are doing wrong, and try to find the best answers that I can. Who we are is irrelevant; the entire state public school system is under mandate from the VT AOE to make the change to PBE in order for the class of 2020 to graduate having had four years of high school PBE.

Yep. We are a year behind. We, and almost every other school I know of, have been procrastinating badly. We've spent 4 years on this so far, and been required to write only four modules for our courses because teachers whine "We don't know what you are asking us to do" and, since the person in charge of PD doesn't really know what the end goals should be and what PBE looks like in practice, we waste lots of time making empathy maps, rating and watching videos that are demonstrably ridiculous, and other tasks that don't really advance the program.

The State A.O.E. reps have openly admitted that they have no idea about how this will work. When I ask for sample transcripts, I get "We don't know. This conference is for you teachers to tell us what a typical graduate should be able to do and be." Ask for sample curricula, or sample frameworks, or sample anything and you get "We can't tell you because we don't have any of that and you have local control." That law was passed four years ago and this conference was one month ago!

Much of the Vermont AOE website focuses on convincing people that this is a good idea, rather than on what this idea actually should look like in practice. Here, you can look for yourself.

The Supervisory Union has openly admitted that they have no real idea of how PBE is supposed to work. "We're not sure. Nobody has done this before. We're on the cutting edge. We don't know what the Graduation requirements should be -- you teachers have to decide. Write your modules to this template, but we're not going to look at them critically - you have to do that."

The principal and other school administration are just as much in the dark but, to their credit, are willing to let teachers do this exploration and possibly fail on our way to succeeding.

I'm going to focus at first on what I feel PBE should be and why I feel it's a good idea, then on some of the things that are really making this transition problematic and may end up destroying the initiative and ruining the educations of many students in the meanwhile.

Hopefully, this exploration will prove useful to both of us.

Another Problem with Computer-Based Learning

I am not a fan of computer-based courses except when the alternative is nothing. If the choice is Moodle or nothing, then Moodle wins, but it's not a great solution. Even a mediocre teacher is better than an online course. Charter schools who offload the majority of teaching onto computer programs are doing a real disservice to their students. Computer programs are far too often limited in what they accept as correct answers, too limited in their explanations, and not particularly well thought out.

Style and colors win out over physics.

The example that prompted this note is below. In the exercises for an online edition of a physics textbook, there was this unit conversion problem that asked students to convert km/hr to m/s, a fairly simple but important task. The student had to drag and drop circles onto a fraction structure - the task was to replicate this pattern:

This is the only acceptable answer, however. Any different arrangement was deemed incorrect:

Those "Learn more" links simply repeated the advice to convert the length measurement first without ever giving any reasons why the fractions should be in that order.

It's programmed that way. No exceptions allowed, even if they are correct.

The worst part? It hasn't been fixed. I sent a note three months ago. This content was written and published at least four years ago. Why the holdup?