Growth Vs Proficiency: An Illustrated Open Letter to Ms. DeVos

Dear Ms. DeVos. It became quite clear during your nomination hearing that you don’t really know that much about education.

Dear Ms. DeVos,

It became quite clear during your nomination hearing that you don’t really know that much about education. Or guns or bears or sexuality. Three of those four things seem like important topics for Secretary of Education.

You really appeared to stumble when asked about growth vs proficiency. Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on education. I don’t have to. Nobody nominated me for the highest position on the subject. I will stick to analogies. I’m good at those.

If you do want more information about the advantages and disadvantages of growth vs proficiency, go check out the American Institute for Research’s page on the subject.

Growth Vs Proficiency

Imagine you are on a football field (you seem like someone who might like football). There is a goalpost set up way at the other end of the field and your really athletic friend is already standing just in front of it. You’ve never been much of an athlete but you want to try your best.

You have one minute to run all the way to the goal. Anybody who doesn’t make it is going to be eaten by a grizzly. We can go ahead and assume the teachers are all armed, so you’re also a little worried about being shot but that’s neither here nor there.

Your friend crossed the finish line after a lazy stroll. Maybe she picked some flowers and sat down for a picnic. She did not work harder than she had to because why should she? She only had to walk five feet.

 On the other hand, you ran as fast and hard as you possibly could. You went a lot farther than your friend but because you stopped just short of the goal — you guessed it — you got eaten by a bear.

One static benchmark is a disservice to both runners. The athletic friend never learns to work hard and is eventually eaten by her own bear.

Now, let’s imagine that there is no bear.

What? No! Nobody shot it. It’s being successfully kept at bay by fences and whatnot.

Each runner has their own goal to move towards. You both work pretty hard because though the finish is a bit of a stretch, it is still reasonable.

Congrats! You both made it! It feels really good to work hard, as well as to succeed. You love that feeling so much that you try to push yourself to meet more goals.

It is true that one runner still has more work to do to cross the final finish while the other is training for the Olympics - but both feel capable of achievement and learn to work hard to better themselves.


In reality, when a kid is never given realistic expectations they give up. What’s the point in working as hard as you can if you never get anywhere? You feel stupid and incapable.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is the kid who does the bare minimum because nobody raises expectations for her. If she is not careful, she will lose ground as the goal posts move later in her education. She will begin to fail things and have no idea how to hustle to get ahead. She will lack study skills and any ability to tolerate boredom. Maybe she will have perfectionist tendencies and constant anxiety as she struggles to graduate. Then she will become a blogger. She might even become a liberal. Or so I hear.

This is a simplified explanation. I’m not a teacher or an expert in education. I am not trying to say there is one sure-fire way to teach every student. In fact, I’m sort of saying the opposite.

I’d go into more detail, but really, why bother?


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Rhiannon Giles is an overwhelmed mother who only occasionally considers giving her children to the circus. She has a sarcasm problem and writes regularly at To keep up with new posts and see some of her favorites, join her on Facebook and Twitter.