July 21, 2013

Maine schools' shift to tougher standards will come with costs

As the state joins others in a transition to 'Common Core,' experts warn it will almost surely mean lower test scores.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Maine has joined 44 other states in adopting the more “rigorous” Common Core educational standards.


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Education Commission Stephen Bowen

Upping the academic expectations means teachers have to make sure their classroom materials and teaching plans hit certain benchmarks defined by the new standards.

"Next year is going to be exciting but hard," Kelly said.

The standards spell out exactly what students in each grade level should know, such as learning the coordinate system in fifth-grade math, or studying U.S. historical texts like the Gettysburg Address or the Rev. Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in ninth-grade English. (Year-by-year standards are available online at www.corestandards.org.)

A big change for English classes, for example, is requiring more nonfiction or "informational" reading material. By 12th grade, students should be reading 70 percent informational texts and 30 percent literature, according to the standards.

That's a big change for most classes. Galin noted that just purchasing that material could prove extremely expensive for Portland schools.

But advocates say high school graduates need to be able to read an employee handbook, a mortgage document or a business contract just as much as they need to know how to parse plot development in a novel.

"This is a rigorous set of standards," said Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, who strongly supports the new standards. "It will allow students to connect to higher education in new ways ... and improve teaching practices."


Gov. Paul LePage signed the Common Core standards into law in 2011, after unanimous support in both the House and Senate. They replace the Maine Learning Results, which were implemented in 1997 and revised in 2007.

There were no new funds earmarked for the shift, which would be "absorbed within existing budgeted resources," according to a fiscal note attached to the original legislation.

In Maine, with its long tradition of local control, the state's education officials are not drawing up lesson plans and reading lists, or proposing what schools should do to achieve the new standards.

Nor is the state earmarking special one-time money to offset new training and material costs, something other states have done. In Tennessee, 30,000 teachers recently signed up for a second round of state-led training in the new standards. California earmarked $1.25 billion in one-time funds and announced "California's Common Core Summer" where teachers are "already back in class" to prepare for the fall.

In Maine, the state is playing a supportive role rather than taking the helm, Bowen said.

"What's encouraging to me is there's a ton of work being done on it," Bowen said of the districts. "They're using this as a chance to look at how they're teaching, not what they are teaching."

Dan Hupp, who oversees content standards for the state, said the department has been working with districts and sending out trainers.

But it's a big job, he acknowledged.

"I'd say this is the biggest switch that we've ever had," said Hupp, director of state standards and assessment for the Department of Education.

One advantage is that Maine isn't going it alone. With so many states adopting Common Core on the same timetable, they can share resources, discuss what works and learn from each other.

"Anything that works well for one is embraced by others," Hupp said. "We've never had anywhere near a resource like that, never had this economy of scale. This thing is huge," he added, since almost all the states "are pitching in to learn these standards."

Hupp said the trainers in local Maine districts can go online to find lesson plans, sample units, discussion boards and other resources as they determine how to implement the changes locally.

"It's just a whole different ball game," he said.

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