May 9, 2013

Alan Caron: Instead of grades, governor should provide ideas, resources

When it comes to education, we already know rich towns score better than poor ones.

Once again the governor offers insults rather than ideas.

With great fanfare, the LePage administration last week released "grades" for most of the public schools in Maine. Any entry-level statistics student could have saved them the time. What the grading tells us is what we have known for decades from standard census data. When it comes to education and test scores, rich towns do better than poor towns.

In higher income communities, kids don't have to worry about the basics, like good food, adequate dental care or safe neighborhoods. They have more preschool learning opportunities and after-school activities. Their families suffer less stress from alcohol, drug abuse, mental illness or chronic health problems.

We don't need school grading to figure out that richer towns produce higher test scores and more college-bound graduates. What we need are ideas and resources for solving the problem of ensuring that all Maine children, regardless of what family or community they are born into, has the chance to grow and learn and enjoy a full and rich life, become informed citizens, good parents and contributors to their community.

Grading schools without the resources and commitment to fix those problems is nothing more than an exercise in degrading communities, schools, teachers and students.

I know this problem first hand, having grown up in a lower income neighborhood in central Maine. I'm sure our elementary school would have gotten a low grade from the governor's people. But that school was a lifeline and a ship to safety for me. It helped me see the larger world, allowed me to gain confidence and gave me the tools to move forward.

I'll never stop being grateful to my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Weymouth, who stood me up before the class almost every day to tell my classmates what I learned that morning from my other window to the world, educational TV for kids. I didn't know it then, but Mrs. Weymouth was teaching me how to remember interesting and useful facts and how to retell them in a story that would inform and engage my classmates.

She was teaching me how to push through my shyness and become lost in the joy of learning and teaching. She inspired me to a lifetime of learning and sharing information, sometimes in classrooms but more often in town halls and public gatherings across the state.

There are countless teachers like Mrs. Weymouth changing the lives of kids every day in Maine. They're often kids who need help and have nobody else to turn to. Many of those teachers are dealing with incomprehensible challenges, including kids without support at home or with learning disabilities, bright kids who need greater challenges, child neglect and abuse, and children who are small mirrors of all of the banality that our culture throws at them today.

We ask teachers to do more than ever before. When all of the problems of the adult world that we struggle to correct are condensed into a small classroom, we ask teachers to fix it. We pay them less than just about any other highly-educated professional we come in contact with, then push them to constantly improve, pinch pennies and put up with careless insults from self-inflated politicians and local complainers.

How teachers do that, day after day, is both a mystery and a miracle.

We've got a little guy who's just about to finish second grade. We are in awe of the teachers at his school. By how much extra they do every day. And by how much they care. We couldn't be more grateful to them for all of the "co-parenting" they are doing every day while we work.

That isn't to say that the schools are perfect. There is more to be done to improve education in a rapidly changing world. We have to find ways to reward the Mrs. Weymouths and weed out the poorly-performing teachers. We still spend too much on administration and not enough in the classroom. But those improvements can't be brought about by deriding schools with bad grades. They have to be done with a sense that we're all in this together.

Grading schools is yet another example of the LePage administration's approach to fixing problems. Instead of ideas, it offers insults. Instead of expanding successes, it chortles over failings. Instead of team-building and collaboration it fuels anger and expands division.

For the sake of our teachers and our kids, this must change. Otherwise, the people of Maine are going to need to give this governor a big time-out.

Alan Caron is a principal of the Caron & Egan Consulting Group and President of Envision Maine, which works to promote Maine's next economy. He can be reached at:

alancaroninmaine@gmail.com

 

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