In 2004, after 11 years teaching English at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle, I left teaching to dabble in motherhood. Though President Bush assured me my students would not be left behind, by the time I returned to a classroom in 2008, the global economy had left 98 percent of us behind, children and adults alike, and somehow teachers and our outlandish retirement schemes took the blame for near-empty public coffers.
From any angle, public schools looked suspect, and teachers wondered what had happened to put us in the crosshairs. Five years later, we continue to ask ourselves how to get out of the line of fire. My advice: Take a page from the best high schools in Maine and view the Department of Education’s latest ideas for improvement with a seriously skeptical eye.
In 2012, Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen established a federally funded Best Practices office, presumably to recommend what best works to improve schools and provide hapless teachers with test score-raising tips. These days he spends much of his time on tour, pushing the department’s plans on schools that have failed to meet expectations. Called “Education Evolving: Maine’s Plan for Putting Learners First,” Bowen’s “Promising Practices” promise to turn teachers into “education managers” and improve how students learn.
The commissioner’s plan includes the hallmarks of standards-based education, a supposed revolutionary improvement on, and decided departure from, the way most teachers have taught and graded children for decades. Bowen’s plan for improving Maine schools says that students following standards-based education rules will:
• Meet targets, as opposed to learning subjects.
• Take assessments only when they have mastered material, and retake any on which they’ve received low scores.
• Receive 1 through 4 scores instead of letter grades.
• Shift to “levels” rather than age-based classes. (Good-bye, freshmen; hello, Level 1.)
But after reading Bowen’s own Report Card, some of us wonder why Maine’s best high schools have adopted none of Bowen’s policy reforms.
Bowen awarded the highest form of educational praise, an A in last month’s report, to nine Maine high schools. Since we have A schools to emulate, what keeps Bowen from changing the state funding formula to allow struggling schools to work toward A schools’ policies and budgets, rather than experimenting with complex, expensive and untried teaching and grading methods?
Not a single one of Maine’s nine A high schools — York, Scarborough, Greely, Kennebunk, Marshwood, Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, John Bapst and the Maine School for Science and Math — uses the Promising Practices soap Bowen sells. They have adopted neither the software nor the pedagogical theory.
Not one has joined the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning — a murky, ostensibly not-for-profit policy panel of 12 superintendents, IT experts and education consultants — for help recalibrating their curricula. From reading the nine A schools’ student handbooks, it appears Maine’s best high schools distinguish themselves in a near-total resistance to the reforms Bowen’s office promotes.
All nine maintain old-school 100-point scales and letter-grade systems, and most outline major consequences for late or missing work. Several of these schools promise failing grades for incompletes more than two weeks old, a direct assault on one of the Best Practices’ hallowed tenets: so-called “learner-centeredness.”
This Bowen-backed reform codifies standards-based education, the core of a law passed in 2012, L.D. 1422, requiring schools to adopt new high-school diploma standards starting with the class of 2017.
Standards-based education calls for students to tick off a litany of standards, or targets, for each subject, and move through “levels,” as if in a video game. As in video games, children keep working on “assessments” with no penalty and no time constraint. Trouble is, teachers teach subjects, as opposed to targets. Most children prefer actual video games over those that teachers design to teach verb tenses, literary devices or the quadratic formula, anyway.
At schools following Bowen’s learner-centered program, a child whose work fails to meet the standard retakes the test or course, rather than accepting a low grade. I taught briefly at a DOE “case study” school in central Maine. This spring, a student seemed nonplussed by his need to retake a class. “It’s like it never happened,” he said, believing his earlier attempt would disappear from his transcript. This prompts parents and college administrators to wonder about the accountability that reform promises.
Additionally, plenty of families seem confused about how to interpret the standards-based code. Parents despair at the unfamiliar numerical scoring, nine-page report cards arriving six times a year and the software designed to measure their children’s progress. Parents misunderstand the targets and have no idea where they originated or who crafted them. Many tell me they envy parents of children whose schools have taken a wait-and-see approach to these notions.
The A schools’ boards and administrators have the luxury of viewing these Promising Practices with caution. They need make no rush to judgment. Well-funded and DOE-anointed, they will have free rein to maintain the status quo, unlike rural schools.
Squeezed by nearly a decade of declining budgets, and now DOE scrutiny, struggling schools will likely adopt whatever might fend off closure. Now, just two graduating classes away from the September 2016 deadline for complying with L.D. 1422, leaders at C, D and F schools worry that bowing to Commissioner Bowen’s plan may be their only chance to keep their doors open.
Many teachers must radically shift not only how we teach but also what we teach. There are dire consequences for failure — school closure — as outlined by a November 2012 memo from Bowen to Gov. Paul LePage.
Cited in a May 13 Press Herald column by Mike Tipping, the memo outlines the LePage administration’s agenda on school accountability.
“The biggest step by far would be to authorize some kind of takeover of a school by the state,” writes Bowen. “A step that is not quite as dramatic as a state takeover would be to allow students in failing schools to have school choice.”
As Maine’s A school faculty appear to know, few teenagers without highly involved parents will move through academic material faster than teachers and peers, and most require consequences for falling behind. The ideal of learner-centeredness — leaving academic pacing to the child — sounds lofty and lovely. But most people who ever were teenagers, or who know a few, would say that without solid boundaries, too many students will flail if not fail.
Teachers wonder whether this system is designed more to measure teachers’ progress than students’, and how we can keep up our progress when students have few or no meaningful deadlines. Our real question is, as always: How do these policies address the biggest education problem in Maine, rural poverty?
Rural Maine schools have long struggled to emulate well-heeled, grade A high schools without the financial resources. If they cave to the DOE’s Promising Practices plan, they give up the rigorous structure upon which the best high schools in the state depend. Promising Practices schools will lose familiar grading and high school traditions, confound families and teachers with unproven digital silicon-bullets, and set many children already challenged by the economy adrift without the discipline that meeting deadlines encourages.
Teachers and school boards can demonstrate that they are “Putting Learners First” by stiff-arming the pricy education consultants and slick software profiteers and resisting the Department of Education’s promises to improve schools by turning teachers into managers and students into widgets.
Lee Roberts is a third-generation high school teacher who lives in Alna.