Educators learn about new system

Posted Feb. 25, 2010, at 9:07 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Educators from across the state came to the capital Thursday afternoon to learn more about the pilot program that intends to make high school more effective for students.

The voluntary program, which is slated to begin in 10 to 20 high schools in Maine as well as in seven other states in the 2011-2012 school year, is being organized by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit National Center on Education and the Economy.

Marc Tucker, the center’s president, spoke at length Thursday to Maine high school principals and others at the Cross Office Building about the benefits of adopting a board examination system, as is common in many European countries and elsewhere around the globe. That system focuses on a core curriculum program with high-quality teacher training, good exams taken from the course material and professional scoring of the exams.

“The object of the game is not to use the exams to sort students out,” Tucker said. “We are talking about making it crystal clear to kids what skills they need to pursue their dream and to be successful.”

In Tucker’s vision, participating high schools would divide into a lower division, composed of freshman and sophomore years, and the upper division for the junior and senior years. Students would take course examinations at the end of sophomore year — a series of tests that would be more like Advanced Placement exams than the Scholastic Aptitude Test or the Maine Educational Assessment exam, Tucker said.

The program would be curriculum-driven, which is very different from results-driven programs such as No Child Left Behind, Tucker said.

Students who pass the board examinations would have the chance either to continue in their school’s upper division and take more advanced courses or to register for “open enrollment” at two- and four-year institutions such as community colleges. Students who do not pass the exams would get a personalized program of study from their high school that would help them with their weak points, Tucker said.

Doing this should greatly lessen the need for remedial, noncredit classes in community college and other postsecondary schools, he said.

The National Center on Education and the Economy has estimated that the project’s examination, teacher training and materials costs would average $42,000 per school in the first year and $89,600 in the second year.

Susan Gendron, commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, said that some of the funding for the pilot schools would come from the Race to the Top federal grant program administered by the U.S. Department of Education.

Gregg Palmer, the principal of Searsport District High School, brought up Maine’s “ZIP code realities” — some school districts have students who come from higher-income families and have more educational resources available to them. Other school districts don’t.

“The syllabi don’t address skill deficits,” he said to Tucker, but added after the presentation that he is interested in learning more about the project.

“Anything that provides a path to postsecondary success is valuable,” he said. “I think it’s a question of fit for the school.”

Although most of the educators present seemed curious about how the program might work in their schools — and how it would be paid for — Chris Galgay of the Maine Education Association said that he was troubled that students might be encouraged to enter the community college system at age 16 with no way to pay for their courses.

“This is another empty promise for the students in Maine,” Galgay said.

Gendron disagreed.

“This is an opportunity for students to have rigorous studies to prepare them for higher education,” she said after Tucker’s presentation was over. “The promise is that they will graduate from high school to be successful in higher education.”

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