Saturday, May 25, 2013

Education "Reform" in Maine, Part 3: Can we change the ending?

Governor LePage’s spokesperson, Adrienne Bennett, thinks poverty is no barrier to education.  “Overcoming poverty himself, Gov. LePage’s own personal story shows that income barriers do not define destiny.”

It’s a common view. Washington D.C.’s controversial former chancellor Michelle Rhee has made similar statements. “Our schools can't fix all of society's problems,” says Rhee in a 2012 article on Huffington Post, “but what happens in classrooms everyday can make a huge difference in the life outcomes of all children. As such, our schools can and should be held accountable for ensuring all students are learning.”

She makes it sounds so simple, but that’s why her statement is so dangerous. Kids bring problems through the doors of school that cannot be solved by the education system alone. Saying that it can trivializes the reality these kids live with.

Diane Ravitch counters such opinions: “They never explain how a great teacher overcomes homelessness, hunger, poor health, and other conditions associated with poverty. Lyndon B. Johnson said in 1965 that you can’t put two people in a race at the same starting line and assume it’s a fair race if one of them is shackled. LBJ knew then what the reformers today never learned.”

How can you pay attention if you don’t know where you’ll be sleeping that night? Or if your dad will show up at home? The horrors attendant upon the lives of poor children are too many to list, and are out of reach of the impact of a really good teacher.

What is a more realistic way to address the education of children growing in poverty?

We might consider the kind of wrap-around services in Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. Health care, counseling, family services, parenting education, all the services children and their families might need so that they might stand a chance of dreaming a dream for themselves.

Let’s fund an initiative wherein low-income school districts can partner with local services to provide in-school services to students in stressful circumstances. Let’s focus on the whole family, because that unit is the most important to the success of the child. This way, we can make sure each student’s needs are being cared for.

With what money? Well, I don’t know what the exact figure is in Maine, but I sure would start with the money that’s going into the implementation of the CCSS and the Smarter Balanced assessments.  

Once you’ve eliminated those toxic influences on learning (and then count up the millions in education dollars saved -- go here for a summary under "the money problem"), whole avenues of opportunity open up. None of the items listed below are easy or cheap, but we’ll be rolling in dough once we get rid of the testing juggernaut.

  • Magnify the voices of the educators here in Maine who have devoted their lives to doing what’s best for children.
  • Bring in a new vision of education. Take this opportunity to truly envision a system of learning that brings out the best in every child. Bring in the voices of people we can learn from and can help us move in the right direction.

  • Put in place a system of public accountability that does not interfere with student learning or the culture of school.

The list goes on and on; there are no lack of brilliant resources both in and outside Maine who would help us re-imagine our schools and reinvest our hard-earned dollars in something that helps children -- rather than a system that hurts them. Overthrow the dictatorship of testing and standardization. This opens up a world of options that would make our kids’ eyes light up.

We the people did not make these financial decisions. They were made for us. They will continue to be made for us. And they are made with profits, not the best interests of our children, in mind.

Maine, we need to get control of the future of our schools before we wake up and realize that that education has left the building.

(I know I promised a three-part series, but I think the next section, "What You Can Do?" deserves its own post, so stay tuned!)


  1. On the western end of our state, things are no different. Of the 10 towns in our RSU, at least 5 towns have had public discussions about withdrawing, and one got a petition signed but couldn't move forward because of money. As a parent and a teacher, I can see that each merger has reduced the quality of education my children receive. Bigger is not better. Our town was a stand alone k-8 district, and our high school kids could choose between the 2 neighboring high schools. We merged into one of the local districts, and were then used as an example for the "successes" of regionalizing. Our kids started in a one teacher per grade level situation, which meant everyone had to make it work-- you couldn't request the "best" teacher, or avoid the "bad" kid. Now, there are multiple teachers per grade level, which has taken away those years of practicing how to get along with people you don't necessarily like.

    In our American consumerism model, we value things: multiple sports teams, after school clubs and the like. What schools need, however, is to go back to basics, and focus more on people and learning to form solid relationships in addition to the academic standards. Until our schools embrace that, we're never going to reach our full potential.

    Thank you for keeping the conversation going.