Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Story of Education “Reform” in Maine

(Part One of a three-part series)

There is an interaction between what is happening nationally on the edu-political scene and what is going on here in Maine. When we connect the dots, what emerges is a picture worth exploring.

I. The Maine story

Governor Paul LePage has cobbled together a system of grading schools, drawing primarily from state standardized test results. The metric used to develop the grading system is faulty, according to some; the Maine Sun-Journal says, “Grading schools isn't popular with superintendents and teachers, who say some of the criteria for the grades comes from things they can't control, including poverty, a lack of parent involvement, truancy and students not showing up to take tests.”

That doesn’t diminish its impact. Once your local school has been given an F, no matter what’s really going on in that school building, no amount of protest and outcry will take that F away. So the Governor is well on the way to making his case for the next steps.  

The State of Maine will also be faced with legislation to provide for school choice in districts where there are failing schools. As goes the students, so goes the money; the per-pupil allocation will follow the students to their chosen school, private or charter.

The school they left behind will have to improve as best they can, as they still will be judged by test scores.  Although those schools will receive less money, there isn’t a proportional reduction of expenses such as heating a building or operating a kitchen. In addition, the fact that a school loses 35 students, for example, does not necessarily mean that the school will be able to cut two teachers, since the students would have been spread out over several classes and grades. So the already significant reductions of art, music, gym, field trips, special projects that have happened in the past few years of cutbacks will continue.  These subjects are irrelevant to the tests...and test results reign supreme.

Measures that will be proposed this legislative session:

  • Legislation to advance school choice options for Maine students. According to the Bangor Daily News, this would “allow colleges and universities to authorize public charter schools and remove the 10-school limit on the number of charter schools that can be authorized by the Maine Public Charter School Commission.”

  • This legislation will also  also includes provisions “to help economically disadvantaged students gain greater school choice by providing funding for tuition and transportation to public and private schools, as well as room and board at charter schools,” according to the Bangor Daily News article.

  • Legislation to calculate the number of students who need remedial math or English at public colleges, and according to the Bangor Daily News, “push the cost of remedial courses needed by higher-education students at public institutions to their home school districts.” I guess this is the “scared straight” strategy.  Threats might work!

There is already a law on the books that will mandate the attachment of test results to teacher evaluations. Regulations and procedures on this measure are now being developed.

II. The national context
But what is happening in Maine needs to be seen in the context of national edu-politics. At the root of Governor LePage’s grades is the impact of high-stakes standardized testing.

The imposition of high-stakes testing (meaning the application of punitive measures if the data doesn’t reveal the right numbers) has turned our schools into places where student identity is the least important factor in what goes on in classrooms; so students have checked out, en masse. We see it. And if we haven’t seen, it we should ask our kids; they see it and experience it every day.

  • Some engaged students go for the grades, accepting the limitation on their learning in an effort to comply and please.
  • Others spend elementary school looking for learning that is meaningful to them, and finding none, have checked out by middle school.
  • Still others have such a difficult time fitting into the tight corners of school expectations that they are medicated into compliance.
  • The ones who survive and thrive best are those who understand that school is a game; they take what they need, leave the rest, and maintain their identity throughout.

High-stakes testing and standardization are keeping our children from the learning experiences they need for future success. Writer/educator Tony Wagner, in his book Creating Innovators, tells us that what the American economy needs are people who can use their creativity and imagination, who regard failure as steps along the way to success.  The best learning experiences schools can provide are those that emphasize passion-driven learning, real-world challenges and personal success.  

The most important ingredients for student success, say Wagner, are play, passion, and purpose. (I would expand this: play, experimentation, inquiry, discovery, creation, and reflection.)

This vision of education cannot take place where test results drive school culture and purpose.

So here we are, at the threshold of another great revolution in testing. Maine has joined 44 other states in knuckling under to the Race to the Top (RttT) blackmail: adopt the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or sacrifice your eligibility for this funding that we are dangling in front of you like a cookie to a starving child. (The price tag of CCSS implementation, it turns out, leaves the possible RttT funding in the dust -- and Maine was turned down for that funding anyway. Ah, well.)

III. If we do nothing...
Since RSU 3 has three failing schools under the Governor's grading system, I think we should consider ourselves vulnerable to the changes and shifts that he proposes.

Since Maine has passed legislation that will tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, look for teacher firings here in RSU 3 (poor communities do consistently worse on state standardized tests). If you think this could never happen here, you don’t understand the basic purpose of that legislation.

Tony Wagner again: “Who would want to teach in a system that measures your worth as an educator by how much your students can regurgitate on a two-hour multiple-choice test and that has reduced much of the curriculum to tedious test-prep exercises?"

Look for more charters to start up, especially in poor districts like ours.

Involved and active parents in areas with failing schools will embrace the new charter schools, no doubt, and nobody can blame them. Without some of the pressures and constraints that are on ordinary public schools, and because most of the students who go there are the children of those involved parents who seek out alternatives, these charters might be pretty nice places -- though still chained to test scores for proof of their value.

I acknowledge that better education for some could seem an improvement over lousy education for all.  Though I reject the Governor’s grading system as giving an accurate reflection of life in our schools, I do think that public education is in desperate need of change.  

More charter schools and choices may be a change that would satisfy many whose prime concern is the educational health of their own children. But is this the change we want in Maine? Is that worth fighting for? Pretty nice places for some of our kids? I’m a dedicated activist and I’m afraid I will never put that on a placard and walk in circles around the State House, with that phrase on my sign.

Compare that vision (“Maine Public Schools: Pretty Nice Places for Some of Our Kids!”) with that of the schools that will result from a different vision of education: play, experimentation, inquiry, discovery, creation, reflection.


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