Proficiency Based Education

AT DESIDERATA we believe actual subject content is a more accurate method of quantifying the credit value of a course than specifying the length of time students spend in a classroom. We therefore, employ a proficiency-based evaluation process that encourages students to succeed.

Desiderata students earn credit for demonstrating their understanding of course material to a level of 80% or higher, and so must establish this degree of understanding in a given subject before progressing to the next level. Students who progress through material at an accelerated pace often complete courses surprisingly quickly and become eligible for early graduation while satisfying compulsory attendance laws.

"Education would be so much more effective if its purpose were to ensure

that by the time they leave school every boy and girl should know

how much they don’t know, and be imbued with a lifelong desire to know it.” 

— Sir William Haley 

Proficiency-Based Education

Proficiency Based Education (PBE), also described as Standards Based or Outcomes Based Education, is an educational model significantly different from the classic format used in the public school systems of the U.S.  A PBE student earns credit for a course based on demonstrated proficiency in the material presented in that course, ideally to an appropriately advanced level.  The standard model of credit determination is based on the number of hours a student spends studying a given topic (the Carnegie Unit System) and is structured such that program evaluation is based on input resources rather than the resultant level of subject mastery.

Desiderata uses the PBE model specifically in denoting the teaching models that are designed toward, and evaluated by, the accomplishment of specific results.  These models differ from classic templates such as those used by the majority of the U.S. public education system, which is commonly evaluated and ranked by input units of time, money, and experience.  PBE, defined as “a student-centered learning philosophy that focuses on empirically measuring student performance” (Wikipedia, 2010).  Some of the most respected experts in the educational field advocate the idea of PBE.  Hal Plotkin, the senior education adviser in President Barack Obama's administration, says proficiency-based education is "… an antidote to boredom in the classroom and a way to make sure that students are exposed to the most relevant education possible." (


Different Forms of PBE

PBE has been interpreted in a vast array of ways and is not a revolutionary idea.  The model has been presented in many venues for years, with varied levels of success.  Indeed, one might say that all education is to some degree Outcomes Based, as success measured by the creation of a literate and competent student body.  Ideally, policies and actions that prove counter to the desired results are modified or discarded.  

Unfortunately, PBE is often linked to other progressive ideas in education, with which it may or may not share doctrine.  Ideas with which PBE is often associated include models based on self-esteem assurance, “un-schooling”, homeschooling, character education, and others.  Many of these ideas have significant intrinsic value, and are well worth investigation and application in their own right, but they are not PBE models themselves, and not used in the Desiderata Educational Model.  While any of these ideas may incorporate PBE into their structure, the individual methods are not part of the definition of PBE.  The unfortunate aspect of these, often erroneous, associations is that difficulties encountered with the application of other models may result in tarnished public views of PBE.

An interesting observation is that some arguments against PBE are based on the perception that it is directly linked to "Morals Education", which although undeniably valuable, is a very personal concept that is seen to be rightfully taught in the home rather than in a public venue.  It is notable that the standard policy of awarding an 'F' to a student who does not demonstrate an understanding of a course and then ending his or her enrollment in that course serves no intellectual purpose.  This is an attempt to punish bad behavior or even humiliate the student into putting acceptable effort into future coursework.  Naturally it is reasonable to expect consequences for poor decisions, but is this not a moral issue rather than an intellectual one?  Requiring the student to continue putting effort into a subject to until proficiency is attained ensures the intellectual goal of mastery of the material.  Classic models instead may allow an easy out in the form of a 'D' or 'F' which represent an end to the intellectual effort without mastery of the subject resulting in an explicitly moral lesson.

Pure PBE

Distilled, PBE is not a holistic educational model.  PBE is a specialized method of instruction and credit determination that is more effective and appropriate for some students in particular, classes, than other methods.  Although the application of PBE may benefit from some sources of curricula which specialize in coursework written with small group instruction or independent study in mind, PBE does not require different specialized coursework than standard ‘seat-time based’ models.  It is, however, predictably more effective when administered by instructors familiar with the model and experienced in small group dynamics.  Instructors trained and experienced in the specialized skill set required by the PBE model find in practice that students who were particularly challenging in seat time based classrooms are often immediately more responsive and successful under a PBE based structure.  Many students who have all but given up on education have found surprising success and a renewed love of learning when given the opportunity to complete courses on a more flexible schedule. 


Challenges Unique to PBE

PBE by nature suggests smaller classes and lower student/teacher ratios.  A given class administered in PBE fashion likely has nearly as many levels of progression as students.  Every student learns ideally at a unique pace and has a uniquely personal set of skills and volume of reference information to draw on.  This results in little effective use for traditional lecturing or large-group instruction.  PBE, by allowing each student to progress at his or her ideal pace, creates a classroom environment suited to a novice/mentor or apprentice/master relationship rather than the standard teacher/class setup. 

Effective PBE instructors are required to concurrently manage a much wider range of topics within a given subject than their traditional classroom counterparts.  Teachers working to apply PBE to school-wide policies have occasionally run into difficulty with time management, as PBE can require more time per student than traditional models.  Allison Marks of Forest Grove High School in Oregon lauds the results of PBE.  She recognizes the significance of the additional work, but says the extra effort is worth it.   According to,  “Marks is a high-energy teacher who advises three after-school clubs. Still, the workload required for proficiency nearly pushed her out of teaching when she piloted it last year.  ‘I was exhausted,’ she says.” (  

Students at Desiderata School in Colorado have been taught using the PBE model for over 20 years.  Since January of 2000, Desiderata has set a class size limit of eight students per Student Sponsor (instructor) in part because of the additional Sponsor time required by each student.  This favorable ratio allows for more focused individual attention than a standard classroom can support but provides the additional time and contact conducive to successful PBE.  This approach works well in a small program like Desiderata, which presently limits enrollment to 100 students per year.

An eight to one student/teacher ratio has certain advantages, but it would be unreasonable for the public school system to be expected to limit classes to this size, as budget concerns would simply not allow for that many teachers and classrooms.  It would be unwarranted in any case, as the classic grading and teaching system does work for many students, and is more financially efficient for a large volume of students than PBE. 


The Best of Both Worlds

Students at Desiderata have been successful with all-PBE curriculums for many years, but there are limitations.  A small program such as Desiderata is well suited to small classes, and textbook/workbook, online, video, or discussion-based coursework.  Limitations are evident in the lab sciences, team sports, ‘shop’ classes, etc., courses that require larger numbers or more resources than a small program can provide.  Whereas large schools find small classrooms and more favorable student/teacher ratios to be prohibitively expensive, small schools offer those services easily, but cannot often afford expensive lab rooms or large athletic fields.  Public program teachers are often challenged by the need to manage classrooms wherein a disproportionately large amount of time is dedicated to a relatively small percentage of students who are either ‘acting out’ through boredom caused by completing work ahead of the scheduled period, or through an attempt to disguise a lack of understanding caused by a need to spend more time on the material than is available.  These classrooms would be much more efficient and productive for the intended demographic if the exceptional students were in classes designed to allow for the completion of material at non-average rates.

This observation, in conjunction with the recognition that there exist a relatively small percentage of students who are truly not suited for the classic model, illuminates the ideal solution clearly.  Rather than attempting to completely replace the classic model of public education for millions of students across the country, encouraging co-operation between the public and private sector through the fusion of both models into an inclusive program offering both large-scale resources and small-group opportunity may be the best method of reaffirming the intellectual status of American students on a world stage. 


Making it Work

Major changes to the public school system have historically raised objections for a number of reasons.  Funding is inevitably near the top of the list.  The argument goes something like this: “If our schools do not have enough funding to achieve success as it is, how can we afford to ‘lose’ students to private schools?”  This is a viable concern, and any major change to the school system must address it.  Trying to convert public schools to significantly smaller classrooms or doubling (even tripling) the number of teachers is obviously not financially reasonable, and neither is simply sending the most exceptional students away to complete their education in private programs, as this means less overall funding for the school as a unit.  The solution is concurrent enrollment, allowing students to actively enroll in more than one school or program at the same time. 

A student concurrently enrolls in a public school and participates in at least a minimum number of courses required for that school to receive full per-capita funding.  He or she then has the opportunity to participate in lab courses, team sports, extracurricular activities, etc.  The student then also enrolls in a PBE program. Generally, the courses taken through the PBE program are those most applicable to the model, such as mathematics, language arts, and social studies.

This arrangement provides significant advantages for all involved.  The student benefits from the PBE virtue of knowing that he or she has a stable foundation basis for progression through linear courses such as Algebra I to Algebra II or American History to US Government or English 9 to English 10, and so forth, and also retains access to the labs, team sports, school dances, etc. offered by the public school system.  The PBE programs encourage, through increased enrollment, a cooperative relationship with the public school system instead of a competitive one, and the opportunity to dedicate teaching efforts towards the subjects most suited towards the model rather than attempting to adapt the full breadth of the curricular range to the method.  The public system stands to benefit most of all, through improved test scores for all students, reduced frustration for teachers, increased parent involvement, and assistance with the instruction of the students least successful


                                                                                                                                                                Former Director, Larame Spence