AUGUSTA — During the past two decades, I’ve had an unusually close look at public education. I served on the Maine State Board of Education in the 1990s, I’ve worked with Montello Elementary School in Lewiston since 1988, I’ve served on the Board of the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education/Educate Maine, and I am currently chair of the state Board of Education.
In recent years, I have heard a great deal of criticism of almost every aspect of what we do in our schools. Let me tackle several that are critically important:
• Rigor: I was on the task force that developed Maine’s Learning Results. It was a two-year process that involved (by my count) 8,000 people. This included teachers, school boards, administrators and the public – everyone who wanted to be heard was heard. In the end, Maine had a rigorous set of standards – some of the best in the country.
The next step was to align expectations for students so that upon graduation, the high school diploma had meaning, and our students were prepared for college, careers and citizenship. It was a huge undertaking in a fast-changing world.
• State vs. Local: Maine’s Learning Standards were not, and are not, intended to be a curriculum. They are the proficiency we expect upon graduation with steps along the way. But it is up to local districts to determine how to get there. Education is a partnership between state and local districts.
• Secrecy: There have been indications that all of this was done behind closed doors. The original standards were never intended to be a one-time document. In fact, it has been revised four times since 1996 and each time – whether at a public hearing, through the Web or at legislative hearings – was and is open to public comment.
• Common Core: When Maine participated in the standards process, so did many other states. State education commissioners decided to see if there were some common points in what was being developed.
Eventually, 45 states agreed to what is being called the Common Core. To date, this includes math and English. There is nothing federal in the Common Core. Good writing in Maine should be comparable to good writing in Texas, Florida and elsewhere.
The fear that the federal government is taking control is sheer nonsense. By law, states are responsible for educating their citizens.
At one time, the federal government would provide block grants with a specific purpose and the states would see that money got to districts. The current administration has decided to have states compete for Race to the Top grants.
Unfortunately, under this process, you have winners and losers, and not everyone gets much-needed additional resources. I would argue that how we educate our students is not being driven by the potential for grants.
While there is a great deal of hype, the Common Core is not a federal initiative; the job of educating students falls squarely on local school boards. As with any initiative of this scale and scope, there will be controversy. However, teachers tell me that Maine’s standards are a good thing.
The actual writing of the standards was done by educators. The business community worked hand in hand with them to identify the skills needed for careers, and numerous state teaching organizations endorse these standards, believing we’ve done a good job of building them.
And when changes were made, there were multiple opportunities for public comment every step of the way.
• Testing: When I was in school, there was a national test. Many new tests have come and gone in an attempt to measure student growth. Smarter Balanced is one test that many states agree will best serve our students. The work comprising this test comes from some of the best research around the country, and has been voluntarily practiced in many Maine districts. Yet it has received criticism without being fully used.
The greatest assets for any school system are high-quality teachers, strong leadership, adequate resources and involved parents.
Parents are the most important teachers in a child’s life. In Maine, we offer many opportunities for success in our public school systems, but that success can be achieved only if all of us pull together for every student’s future.
Education has always been a complicated business, but it is the most important gift that we give our children, and it is the fuel that feeds our economy and helps build productive citizens.
— Special to the Telegram