Maine education commissioner says schools must transform for ‘new era’

Posted June 27, 2011, at 7:19 p.m.
Last modified June 27, 2011, at 8:04 p.m.

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AUGUSTA, Maine — The state’s new commissioner of the Department of Education said Monday that if public schools don’t make a major transformation in the next 20 years, there’s a very real chance they will become irrelevant.

“We’ve got to transform. We’ve got to reinvent schools for this new era,” Stephen Bowen said during a break Monday at the 100th annual School Superintendents Conference at the Senator Inn in Augusta. “Or you have to [wonder] if schools will exist in the future.”

The commissioner, who just wound up his weeks-long listening tour of more than 24 schools around the state, had strong words about his conviction that the old way of thinking about education just isn’t enough anymore.

Bowen said the current model of education has been largely unchanged for more than 100 years and was designed for a world that has greatly altered in the meantime. In the past, public education was aimed mostly at students who intended to go into the work force and not onward to higher education.

“It was never designed to bring every single kid high achievement in rigorous academic standards,” Bowen said. “And we’re just killing ourselves doing it.”

Trying to adhere to the old model in the new world is making teachers, administrators and even students burn out early, according to the commissioner.

“The system doesn’t work. That’s not for lack of trying,” Bowen said.

With increased interest in home schooling and the ubiquity of the Internet, public schools will have to work to remain relevant. He said some schools in Maine are on the cutting edge of this work. Around the state, they are generating positive results with programs that focus on standards-based education, experiential learning, classrooms that aren’t age-based and other techniques to keep students engaged with school.

“There’s great stuff going on in Maine schools. Lots of innovative stuff,” Bowen said. “Everybody’s really working very hard, and communities are very invested in their schools.”

According to the commissioner, the big challenge for Maine schools will be to reinvent and transform education for the future while maintaining education today, a task made more complicated by perennial funding woes and the need for schools to perform well on assessments.

“It’s like rebuilding the airplane in flight,” he said.

Those words were echoed at the conference by teachers from RSU 57 in southwestern Maine, where the schools have been working toward implementing performance-based education for the last two years. Some faculty members gave a presentation to a packed room of superintendents and other school administrators.

Marianne Stephenson, who teaches English at Massabesic High School in that district, said there has been a steep learning curve as she has tried to get students on board with the new teaching and learning style. Although initially students balked at doing things such as setting their own goals — and were unwilling to let go of what she called the “memorization model” and traditional grading — over time they have grown to appreciate the changes she put before them.

“It turned around drastically,” she said. “Now that they understand the system, they’re really appreciating it.”

Bruce Mailloux, superintendent of RSU 20 in the Belfast area, said he enjoyed the presentation, which included a video of middle school students talking enthusiastically about the new model.

“I think it’s fair to say that it’s exciting,” he said. “There’s certain key things that keep coming up — student ownership of learning. Student input. When you see examples where kids are excited about learning, you have to get excited as an educator.”

Bowen said that tapping into that sense of excitement and ownership about learning will be key to keeping public education relevant to students. Also, educators may need to come to terms with the idea that they no longer have a “monopoly on information” and continue working to incorporate ever-evolving technology — such as iPads and movie-making programs — into their curriculum.

“Students have more options than they used to,” Bowen said. “What I’ve tried to reinforce is the urgency … We’ve got to take some bold steps. It’s not just about keeping the lights on. It’s about transforming the system.”

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