Field Notes from Portland, Maine

By Cynthia Warner

The 19th century zoologist Louis Agassiz instructed field scientists to “study nature, not books,” which became the motto of the nature-study movement. With a similar spirit of investigation, 14 New York City educators embarked on a field experience of our own last month: an Innovation Field Trip to Portland, Maine.

We designed the Innovation Field Trip so that PROSE educators and stakeholders could gather inspiration around mastery-based learning models. Innovation Field Trips are one way the iZone supports forward-thinking communities of educators. During Innovation Field Trips, we visit places outside of our local context to gather inspiration and expand our horizons of what is possible in an educational setting.

By visiting schools where students received grades and credit based on their demonstrated mastery of learning targets, we hoped to investigate:

  • What were the key elements of the mastery-based learning models here?
  • What were the challenges and triumphs in their implementation journeys?
  • And what structures might we adapt to support our own implementations in New York City?


Mastery in Maine

Maine was our destination because of a proficiency-based diploma requirement passed by the state. By 2018, every student in Maine must graduate with a proficiency-based diploma that recognizes the student has demonstrated mastery of key knowledge and skills and is therefore ready to graduate. In the words of Maine’s state department of education, “Proficiency-based education refers to any system of academic instruction, assessment, grading and reporting that is based on students demonstrating mastery of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn before they progress to the next lesson, get promoted to the next grade level or receive a diploma,” (learn more here). In this transition to a proficiency-based learning system, districts across Maine are supported by state guidelines but retain autonomy to design and decide their proficiency-based approach.

I’m not sure if Agassiz, the 19th century scientist, endured similar travel woes, but a plane cancellation meant our team drove, found later flights, and even arranged transit on intra-airport shuttles in order to arrive in time for our two days of school visitations. Our Field Trip team—comprising teachers, administrators, UFT representative, and central office staff–thus arrived in Portland, feeling as though we had earned our upcoming learning experience!

We are a team who has been trying or implementing versions of what is variously termed competency-, mastery-, outcomes-, or standards-based learning (in Maine, “proficiency” is the preferred term). Generally, this is marked by the effort to shift the focus of both curriculum and grading towards a demonstrated ability to do particular things (learning targets): learners might look at a progress report that shows “I can measure liquid volume and weight” and terms like approaching, meeting, or exceeding for that target.

We were generously hosted by four schools who introduced us to their implementation journeys with proficiency: Memorial Middle School, Daniel F. Mahoney Middle School, South Portland High School (all part of the South Portland School District), and Casco Bay High School, a Portland school founded in 2005.


Field Notes

Below are some of the key insights I culled from our time exploring the implementation journeys of four schools in and around Portland. Over the next several weeks, I will post reflections on each of these insights on the iZone blog, and would love to hear your thoughts — as a reader or as someone who participated in this visit!

Key motivators: why do we do this here?

  1. “Revision: That’s where the learning happens”
  2. “Learning is a year-long event”
  3. Leaving behind the “seemy underbelly of the traditional grading system”

Key tensions and insights: what is it like to do this here?

  1. If we’re not counting points, what are we counting?
  2. “It changed everything I knew about teaching.”
  3. Do we all “understand” in the same way?


Cynthia Warner is a Senior Director of Strategy and Operations in the iZone.