Education du jour

Compulsory education became the law of the land in 1918 — just 100-years ago. Elementary education and “common schools” existed before that time, but the number of children receiving formal education was modest.

Today in Maine, 620 public schools and 117 private institutions assure that every child has access to a fair and “free” (taxpayer-funded) education. This gain in opportunity and access has not, unfortunately, been matched by progress in curriculum and measurement of outcome. What constitutes an education that assures society of a fresh crop of informed, critical thinkers? And, much as we support extra-curricular sports, when did public education become a political football?

Case in point: Late in June, the state Legislature voted to repeal parts of Maine’s proficiency-based education standards. Those standards were put in place in 2012 with the goal of cultivating high school graduates who had demonstrated proficiency in eight subject areas. The ambition was to turn out graduates who 1. have the skills and behaviors to interact with others, set goals and make career, college and citizenship decisions; 2. are literate in history/social studies, science and technical subjects; 3. understand basic health concepts; 4. have demonstrated knowledge of math and algebra; 5. have knowledge of science and technology; 6. understand civics and government, economics, geography and history; 7. show an appreciation of visual and performing arts; and 8. have a working knowledge of at least one other language.

The “proficiency” requirement is now, by vote of the Legislature, optional. Compared to outright repeal, that may seem a mercy. But the chief goal of proficiency education — that students in Fort Kent have the same competencies as students in Cape Elizabeth — has been eliminated by the vote.

Whether one admires or questions the proficiency standards and plans for implementation, the fact is that for the past six years parents, teachers, superintendents, school boards and teachers associations have spent countless nights and weekends planning for the transition. Regional School Unit 24 already made the switch. The incoming freshman class at Ellsworth High School was to be the first to meet the new standards. What’s the plan now? The superintendent said he is awaiting guidance from the Department of Education.

Proficiency-based education has been waylaid very late in the day by critics and legislators not willing, or able, to understand how detrimental the effects of the constant whipsawing of education standards, measures and programs are on the whole process. Educators, administrators, teachers and students are working under guidelines that change at the whim of political expediency — always before any useful outcomes can tell us whether the implemented programs have met the stated goals. Is it any wonder that veteran teachers don’t buy into each initiative and that administrator’s slow-walk their support?

Ellsworth Sen. Brian Langley and Bar Harbor Rep. Brian Hubbell have openly expressed their frustration with the Legislature’s unnecessary roll back of proficiency standards. Langley, a former educator as well as a local employer, knows that Maine has a formidable workforce issue: high school graduates unable to perform basic writing and arithmetic tasks, unable to complete resumes.

“We need everybody in our society to be functioning to the best of their ability,” he said.

Maine has a Department of Education that should be doing the heavy lifting for all education standards. If that is not one of its fundamental roles, then what is its primary function? Why are party politicians in the Legislature making these important calls? Maine also has a Department of Transportation — does the Legislature weigh in on bridge design, ferry construction and tarmac thickness?

No one knows how the proficiency standards conundrum will play out. The only sure thing is that in November we will elect a new governor and new legislators and education reform will be back on the table. Or, to continue the metaphor, back on the field for a political football game with moving goal posts and new tackle rules and fewer individuals interested in playing the game.

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