February 15, 2013

Maine Voices: A center for educational excellence would unify collective wisdom

Such a collaboration could improve learning for all students in the state, not just in isolated hot spots.

When I served as chief of the monitoring team for the Vocational Division of the U.S. Department of Education, we visited state departments of education. As part of our visit, we asked each state to arrange for us to visit with educators at its secondary schools. I found extraordinary pockets of academic success throughout the country.

I strongly believe that what I saw nationwide has the potential for a parallel in Maine. What I experienced was not only dynamic individuals but also dynamic systems. It is true that the schools our team visited trotted out the best; but that's the point! There were "bests" to be experienced.

After retirement, I spent about a year in Washington state participating in a statewide coalition of post-secondary institutions. Although these were not secondary institutions, the coalition provided a valuable educational model. The cooperation between institutions resulted in the sharing of best practices, openly and successfully. The cooperation academically and administratively was unique and benefited everyone involved.

My career in education provided a lot of experiences, but reflecting on these two experiences led me to this consideration: Couldn't we, as a state, create centers of educational excellence that could illuminate the educational experience for all students in the state, rather than having isolated hot spots of success?

Within this state, we clearly do have hot spots of success. Every year there is competition for and recognition of Teacher of the Year. I strongly suspect that the people whose names are put forward as candidates are creative and energetic in their schools. Clearly, all of them are winners, but only one gets the award. But why limit the value of these teachers to individual schools?

Why not have a Center for Educational Excellence? I'm not sure of the exact mechanics of administration or governance of such a center, but I would propose collaboration between the state education department, local school districts, the Maine Education Association and any and all those who have the expertise to contribute. I'd like to see the collective wisdom of past, present and future educational best practices brought together in one place, and made available to all secondary schools in the state.

Initially, I would propose drawing on educators from Maine but once established it could be expanded to include contact with other educational resources.

I visualize that the mechanics of the collection and distribution of the center could be determined without any increase in bureaucracy. There are educators, legislators and the general population, active and retired, who I strongly suspect would gladly contribute their time and energy to bringing such a center into existence. Again, the actual mechanics of collection, distribution and administration of such a center clearly would need to be determined, but the essence of the center -- the collective successes from instructors and institutions -- is clear. Build on and share what has proven successful educationally.

Perhaps the state education commissioner could provide the initial movement in this direction. A key contribution could come from the commissioner, who could travel the state, or look in his notes about previous travels, and identify those schools, administrators and teachers who have created positive learning environments and positive outcomes for students.

This could be a core resource for the center. Look to the good, the successful and the resourceful -- utilize this aggregate wisdom. Value it and share it. Choose to build on known and actual successes.

I would further propose to the governor, commissioner, Legislature and educational practitioners that such a center would create a statewide school "success" system beyond what might occur from the proposals that move students around, or move their time-frames around, or move monies around.

How about a little movement of imagination?

Mark Schwartz, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of mathematics at Southern Maine Community College.



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