One of the few things I tend to agree with conservatives about is that we would probably be better off without the U.S. Department of Education and the Maine Department of Education.

Beyond serving as a pass-through for tax dollars and perhaps promulgating some advisory standards, federal and state education departments just seem to be constantly meddling with public education better left to local school boards.

While I do not share the conservative fear that some sort of government conspiracy is behind the federal No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, and Maine’s Common Core of Learning and Learning Results, as a parent, reporter and school committee member I had enough experience of education reform in the 1990s to sour me on the educational bureaucracy for life.

Back in 1993, I covered an education summit at the University of Maine for Maine Times. Close to 400 educators and school officials developed a consensus around the need for more individualized instruction to honor multiple intelligences, and for more authentic assessment tools than arbitrary letter and number grades. It all made perfect sense. Then politicians, bureaucrats and business people hijacked the school reform agenda, and what eventually came out was the opposite of what educators agreed was needed.

Where teachers wanted authenticity, politicians wanted accountability. So what we got were one-size-fits-all standardized learning results measured by number grades on high-stakes tests. To make matters worse, the whole school restructuring movement got sidetracked by state-mandated school consolidation, perhaps the greatest waste of time, money and energy in Maine public school history.

So I was surprised to read last week that Portland Superintendent of Schools Emmanuel Caulk, who writes The Superintendent’s Notebook in these pages, was proposing a new set of graduation requirements for Portland high schools in keeping with a state law passed in 2012 mandating “proficiency-based” graduation standards by 2017.

Caulk’s proposal of capstone learning projects for high school seniors is exactly the sort of authentic and alternative assessment tool that educators were talking about 21 years ago, before Maine adopted Learning Results that essentially say every student needs to master the same body of skills and knowledge before they can graduate.

I was elected to the Yarmouth School Committee in 1995. A couple of years later Maine adopted its first set of voluntary learning results. There was so much talk back then about how education would change in restructured schools that before Falmouth built its new high school and Yarmouth renovated and expanded its high school, the Falmouth and Yarmouth school committees met to discuss the possibility of some sort of joint venture.

If seat time and course requirements were going to be abandoned as graduation criteria in favor of individualized learning, in which students would have multiple ways to demonstrate mastery of the required skills and knowledge, then it was conceivable that some students would satisfy the learning results in two years instead of four. Then what would we do with them?

Falmouth and Yarmouth school officials actually discussed constructing a shared education center (perhaps in Cumberland) that would serve students working on independent capstone projects. Obviously, nothing came of it, just as nothing much comes of most statewide educational reforms.

When I was in high school in the 1960s, there were multiple tracks a student could follow to a diploma: general, business, industrial arts, college academic (emphasis on arts and humanities) and college technical (emphasis on math and science). But tracking came to be seen as a form of discrimination and was replaced by a universal push to get every student to master the same knowledge.

In recent years, that body of knowledge has tended to focus on STEM education: science, technology, engineering and math, despite the fact that most people, even college grads, get along quite nicely in life without mastering things like algorithms and aerodynamics. Once you get much beyond reading, writing and arithmetic, there’s not a lot else that every educated person needs to know. The problem with Learning Result is that they go way too far.

I think Maine teachers had the right idea back in 1993: more flexible, individualized education with multiple ways to demonstrate mastery. You don’t ask how smart a student is, you ask, “How is this student smart?” You determine her interests, needs and aptitudes. Then you pick her up where you find her and you take her as far as you can before she heads off to college, work, the military and whatever life after high school has to offer.

That’s true academic success, not making every student jump over the same bar.

Sidebar Elements

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.