An explainer: Proficiency Based Education fuels growth of transferable skills

proficiency-based-ed-logoEditor’s Note: This is Part 3 of TRSU Curriculum Coordinator Michael Eppolito’s series explaining a seismic shift in public education, classroom work and grading that will be implemented throughout Vermont schools for those graduating in June 2020.

By Michael Eppolito
©2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In December of 2013 Vermont’s Board of Education passed a set of rules called the Education Quality Standards or EQS, rules designed to guide Vermont’s schools in a process of “continuous improvement.”

The EQS do a good job of defining what schools should focus on. One of the most important rules in the 22-page document is the one focusing on Proficiency Based Education. In previous columns, I have discussed what proficiency based education is and its impacts on students. Now I want to take a closer look at a part of the proficiencies in EQS know as Transferrable Skills.

If you are interested in reading the Education Quality Standards, you can read them here.   The rule I am referring to Curriculum Content 2120.5 is on Page 5.

Transferrable skills are sometimes called “soft, cross-content or non-cognitive skills.” They include skills like communicating clearly, collaborating and being self-directed, which are all essential in getting and holding a job. These skills apply across all kinds of work and all academic content areas.

“Hard skills” on the other hand are job specific, the skills you need to be a mechanic or accountant. Not surprisingly the list of “soft skills” differs according to who you talk to or which website you consult. Harvard Professor Tony Wagner names Seven Survival Skills; Partnership for 21st Century Learning cites 17 skill areas, while the website Skills You Need  identifies 10 Transferrable Skills. While there is no single set of skills, there is considerable agreement around communication, problem solving, working with diverse people and self-direction.

Vermont has long considered the skills that students need in life beyond school to be of paramount importance. In 1987, communities in northern Vermont began thinking about what they wanted from their schools. From those discussions grew the Vermont Core Curriculum, published in 1992.

That curriculum focused on four areas: communication, problem solving, personal responsibility and social responsibility.

Vital Results, beyond the classroom

In 2000, the four areas were renamed the “Vital Results” and incorporated in the Vermont Framework of Standards. The Vital Results were mostly ignored as the nation dealt with the testing and accountability mandates under No Child Left Behind.

Now under EQS, the Vermont Agency of Education moved these standards back to the center of education reform. Its decision is now backed by years of research from organizations like the Asia Society that a cross-disciplinary skill-set is not only good for student learning, it also better prepares young people for life beyond school.

The agency revised the Vital Results to encompass a set a skills it believes all students need — not just in the workplace, but in society as a whole. The agency identified 36 skills it considered to be the most important, then grouped those skills into five categories: Informed and Integrative Thinking, Creative and Practical Problem Solving, Informed Citizenship, Self Direction and Clear and Effective Communication. You can see the recommended list of performance indicators on the Agency of Education’s web site. Two Rivers Supervisory Union has edited this list of 36 indicators down to 17.

As a matter of course, teachers have been incorporating these transferable skills into their classes for years. However, in our Proficiency Based System we will now be teaching, assessing and reporting on these Transferable Skills.

Working it into the classroom

At both Black River and Green Mountain high schools, teachers in Grades 7 through 12 are explicitly incorporating specific transferable skills into their instruction and assessments. They are beginning to design a reporting system to communicate to students and their families proficiency levels for those skills.

For years educators just assumed students picked up these soft skills as they advanced through their education. For our teachers, now those assumptions have to backed up by evidence that a student has demonstrated proficiency. For example “Observe and evaluate situations in order to define problems” is one of the performance indicators from the Transferrable Skills. Teachers will have to figure out what that looks like in their content area, then incorporate it into their instruction and assessment. Observing and evaluating situations to define problems may look very different in history and science, but students of history and science both need that skill.

Changing our two high schools to better address the future is not going to be easy.

We have to rethink instructional and assessment practices. Our teachers will have to strengthen their own collaboration skills to design more cross-curricular opportunities for students.

However, we are starting to see teachers try these approaches out. One math teacher had her students apply the work they were doing in Algebra II in a whole different way, by connecting the math to baskeball. An upper-class physics teacher partnered with a 7th grade math teacher to plan and build projectile launchers. A team of high school students planned and facilitated a discussion with students from all six Two Rivers schools on how to revise our mission statement. These few examples point the way for our work, and soon all of our students will benefit from such innovative thinking.

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About the Author: Michael Eppolito is the Curriculum Coordinator for Two Rivers Supervisory Union, which serves Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish, Chester, Ludlow, Mount Holly and Plymouth. He taught middle school at Flood Brook Union School in Londonderry for 10 years. Before that he was a special educator in Londonderry and in Silver Spring, Md. Eppolito earned his B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Maryland, College Park and his M.A. in Special Education from George Washington University. He lives in Londonderry with his wife and son and their dog.

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