Oregon governor John Kitzhaber ushered a group of education bills through the legislature in June. One of them, SB 909, created the 15-member Oregon Education Investment Board not only to control the finances of all state-run schools, but also to make sure there are ways for Oregon’s kids to progress at a rhythm that works with their academic needs. In other words, students matriculate based on the state’s revamped academic standards, not time spent in the classroom.
According to an article in the Oregonian, Kitzhaber wants the board to “shift the focus of education from what he calls ‘seat time’ to learning.” Students will, the article reports, “advance based on what they know and can do rather than on how much time they spend in school.”
Suggesting that students should be able to advance at their own pace is not a new idea. In 2008, for instance, the Oregon Education Roundtable published “Taking Promising High School Practices to Scale,” which included a pretty comprehensive comparison of traditional and proficiency-based education. This concept (self-paced, personalized learning) is also a huge selling point for many online schools. But it’s a rare move for a state legislature to overhaul its public education system with this philosophy in mind.
There are brick-and-mortar schools out there that employ this kind of system already. Some high schools in Rhode Island have a proficiency-based diploma system, and Northwest Academy, a private college-preparatory school in Portland, is designed in the same way that its founder, a former dance teacher, would have organized her dance classes – by placing each student at grade level based on their “accomplishments, current knowledge, and demonstrable skill,” not by age.
And in some cases, entire districts have made this their model: in the Chugach School District, an Anchorage-based district serving 22,000 square miles of some of the remotest areas in south central Alaska, has done away with grade levels completely to set up a system of academic mastery that each student can use to navigate his or her own path.
Grade levels will not likely be eliminated across the nation anytime soon, but certainly the concept of individualized, self-paced learning – whether that’s within a classroom grouped by age and grade level or by ability, aptitude, and interest – is becoming more the cornerstone of quality education. How will the rise of online and blended learning models further impact these reforms? And what’s next for Oregon?