June 23, 2013

Putting learners first?

None of the state's 'A' schools uses Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen's 'improvement' plan – and neither should any of the rest.


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.

click image to enlarge

Staff Photo Illustration/Michael Fisher

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.

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