April 27, 2013

Maine public education's future, mass customized learning

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

For better or for worse — and there are people on both sides — education in Regional School Unit 18, and the state of Maine, will never be the same.

click image to enlarge

Karen Mayo, a fifth-grade teacher at the James H. Bean School in Sidney helps two students Jade Veillaux, 11, right, and Macey Eubank, 10, left, on Wednesday. James H. Bean is one school in the area that has implemented a mass customized learning program that integrates up to three grade levels in one classroom.

Staff photo/Michael G. Seamans

What is Mass Customized Learning?

The debate about mass customized learning is mired in words whose meanings are easy to lose track of — terms such as proficiencies, standards-based achievement, core curriculum, and essential skills can make it difficult to digest what the system is all about.

At its core, however, the idea is simple.

In the traditional classroom, all students are placed in a classroom with other students their own age, and they are taught the same thing at the same time. Everyone spends a certain amount of time learning addition, for example, and then moves on to subtraction.

Under mass customized learning, that traditional model is turned on its head.

Students instead are taught the information at their own pace, alongside other students who are also ready for that same piece of information.

After an addition lesson, those students who master addition move on to subtraction. Those students who can’t demonstrate that they have mastered addition keep trying until they learn it.

The approach, while simple, has huge consequences. Under the learning system, there is no need to grade students, because they either understand addition or they don’t. Students must master all of the necessary skills in the curriculum before they can graduate.

With the new focus on what an individual student knows, there is also no need to segregate students by age — the 7-year-olds who are great at reading will be reading with others at the same proficiency level, even those who are 9 or 10 years old. With students grouped by proficiency level instead of age, the entire concept of a single classroom holding a single grade of students becomes outdated.

A classroom using the new learning system has small, ever-shifting groups of students who travel from one teacher to the next to get the lesson that they personally are ready to learn.

The classroom might look different, depending on what is being taught.

In some mass customized learning classrooms, students work on individual computers, reading material and answering questions about what they’ve just read. Instead of feeding information to students from the front of the classroom, teachers circulate among the students, answering questions and making suggestions.

Students are encouraged to play a more active role in their own education by giving teachers feedback about what they don’t understand. In this model, the teachers and students discuss learning obstacles as partners, working together to identify and overcome problems.

Students still might take tests, but they’re not penalized for getting wrong answers to questions. Instead, the incorrect answers can lead to more conversations and interactions with the teacher, with a goal of figuring out what’s holding the student back.

For three years, the district, with schools in Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney, has been changing to an educational system called mass customized learning, also called standards-based, or proficiency-based, learning.

Under the system, this fall’s freshman class at Messalonskee High School will graduate in 2018 with a diploma, but the class members’ high school transcripts won’t include a grade point average.

Instead, the transcripts will tell colleges and prospective employers that the students are proficient in all the essential educational skills in the curriculum.

School administrators and the state say the new system is a long overdue step from the stone age to the digital age.

However, some parents and teachers have expressed concerns about the change, which includes a different grading system, curriculum and teaching process.

RSU 18 is one of six Maine districts that received state funding between 2009 and 2011 to pursue the learning system, which state education leaders hope to see fully implemented at all Maine public schools within a decade.

The others were Farmingdale-based Regional School Unit 2, Jackman-based Regional School Unit 82, Gray-based Regional School Unit 15, Waterboro-based Regional School Unit 57 and the Milford School District.

Mass Customized Learning

Linda Laughlin, the district’s assistant superintendent, has been overseeing the switch, which began in earnest this year at all of the district’s elementary schools and Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland.

Laughlin said the traditional school system has stood in the way of student achievement, a sentiment that is echoed in a statewide education plan created by the Maine Department of Education.

“It replaces the assembly-line structure, where everyone is grouped by their age and moved forward almost regardless, in some cases regardless, of their performance in the prior year,” she said.

Under the old system, Laughlin said, “you’re setting up this sort of remedial program, and if students don’t get it, they have to go back and learn it. That sends a message that there’s something wrong with them, and that’s not true.”

Instead, she said, “we’re recognizing that all students learn in different ways and different time frames and setting up a system that recognizes that.”

At the end of high school, students are better prepared, because they don’t miss any of the essential curriculum, Laughlin said.

“It’s not a matter of getting 70 percent of math or better,” she said. “It’s a matter of what is essential for every child to know and then not allowing them to graduate until they have them.”

Parent leaves district

Not all parents and teachers are embracing the system or the way it is being implemented at the district.

Some parents have spoken against the system repeatedly at public forums and in online discussion groups.

Kristen Bequeath said she loved Belgrade Central School and its teachers when her son, Austin, now 10, began attending.

A month ago, Bequeath pulled Austin from the school and enrolled him at Mount Merici Academy, a private school in nearby Waterville.

“We knew we had to do something drastic,” she said. “We knew this was going to be a wasted year for my son.”

Bequeath said the new system caused her son to be so far behind that he is now in fourth grade at the academy, instead of fifth grade at Belgrade Central.

“I’m realizing now how much he was behind with learning grammar and learning things like that,” she said. “There’s a lot missing in the meat of the curriculum. I’m really concerned.”

(Continued on page 2)

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