Education commissioner rolls out new plan that he says puts learners first

Posted Jan. 17, 2012, at 12:17 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 18, 2012, at 9:30 a.m.
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen

AUGUSTA, Maine — Giving students more control over their education, along with greater accountability and flexibility are the centerpieces of a new direction for Maine’s K-12 schools outlined by the state’s education commissioner Tuesday.

At the Capital Area Technical Center at Cony High School, Stephen Bowen unveiled a plan that he and his staff have spent months researching and preparing.

Although the plan does not include any new programs or major policy initiatives, Bowen said it gives the state’s Education Department a sharper focus and, more importantly, puts students at the center.

“We need to build an education system that reaches every student,” he said. Part of that means building a system with “unprecedented flexibility and multiple avenues for student success.”

Chris Galgay, head of the Maine Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union, said he’s still analyzing the department’s proposal but said the union is willing to work with the department on the plan.

The plan released Tuesday, titled “Education Evolving — Maine’s Plan for Putting Learners First,” was spurred by public comment that Maine’s Department of Education lacked direction, and consequently, the state’s schools lack any comprehensive plan.

The comments were gathered last year when Commissioner Bowen held listening sessions around the state.

The plan states that although Maine’s test scores, drop-out-rates and other indicators of success are strong nationally, “progress is slow. Test scores are essentially flat, and graduation rates, while up slightly, are gaining too slowly.”

To pick up the pace of improvement, the department recommends a number of changes.

For example, students shouldn’t be grouped by age, but by ability, the report states. Their school schedule should be flexible and allow internships. Students should be able to take online courses that count for credit. They should be able to, in part, guide their own learning to their interests, according to the report. All of this might help keep Maine students engaged and lower the drop-out rate.

And all of these ideas must be implemented without spending more money, Bowen stressed Tuesday.

“We understand the limits that we confront,” he said. “We can’t start new programs, I can’t go to the Appropriations Committee and say ‘I need this much money.’ This needs to be about ‘How do we make better use of the resources we’ve got?’”

One major cost saver would be implementing technology system-wide and getting away from paper.

Meanwhile, teachers should be given access to help, such as information on which textbooks are effective and how other teachers have made an effect in important subject areas. The state will work with stakeholders to create guidelines how well the teachers perform, according to the plan.

For teachers who don’t perform well, the state will create regional centers for professional development training. Teachers might also be given data on their students, if the state department is allowed to start tracking students’ learning through the years.

“Ensuring that education policies and programs at both the state and local levels are effective requires a robust, transparent accountability and improvement system that tracks the growth and achievement of every learner,” the plan states.

Under No Child Left Behind, the state is allowed to track groups of students and can, for instance, look at how last year’s eighth-graders compare to this year’s eighth-graders. The department wants to better track individual students, which would let the department identify under-performing schools and help tailor learning plans for individual students.

There are already schools in Maine innovating and finding new ways to captivate students, Bowen said, and he wants his department to organize those good ideas and make them accessible to other schools.

Maggie Stokes, a fourth-grader from Oakland, spoke about her experiences that have allowed her better control over her curriculum.

“I like the new way of learning because it makes fourth grade a lot more interesting,” Stokes said Tuesday while standing on a box to reach the podium. “We have goals and we make our own rules with the teacher’s help based on the standards. And we have lots of voice and choice, which I like.”

Gareth Robinson, an eighth-grader at Auburn Middle School, said technology has been the key to his level of engagement inside the classroom and away from it.

“I wouldn’t want to go to a school without technology; I can’t even imagine what it would be like,” he said, using his iPhone to read his speech. “If I had a choice, I’d rather be clicking.”

Two Sumner Memorial High School students who participate in the Pathways program, which allows them to learn in alternative ways, talked about the benefits of online classes, internships, adult education and independent studies to supplement their time in the classroom.

Kaytie Scully, a senior at Sumner, admitted she had a rough start to her high school career, but she has found purpose by enrolling in a certified nursing education course through adult education. She will get both high school credit and a professional certificate when she’s done.

Morgan Horn, a junior at Sumner, has been able to take summer classes and to do work outside of normal school hours so that she can graduate a semester early and go to college.

The department has highlighted 10 different areas that could benefit from having online discussions about what is working, such as in special education, textbook selection, digital learning programs and in how schools integrate the community into learning and more.

“Teaching has been and continues to be a largely solitary practice providing few opportunities for collaboration and sharing of best practices. With the advent of the Internet, the sharing of new ideas and new approaches to teaching can be far more readily facilitated,” the report states. “Instructional materials, research on best practices, and even videos of effective instructional methods can be shared instantly across the state and around the world. Today, though, no single statewide library of such materials exists.”

Aside from creating databases, online guides and regional professional development centers, the plan takes few other steps on telling people how, exactly, this plan will work. The Education Department doesn’t say how it might implement its biggest ideas, like changing age-based school levels or using online courses for school credit. The department intends to form committees to work on these plans.

Galgay, representing the union, said it’s difficult in Maine to mandate anything because local school districts have authority over their schools.

William Shuttleworth, the superintendent of Camden-area schools supports the plan, which he called “rather radical.”

“I am most drawn to the concept of ‘any time, anywhere learning,’ making the world a student’s campus. The role of schools must change to adapt to the incredible learning opportunities that exist outside of school,” Shuttleworth said. “[This plan] will take our current professional staff, all of us, to shape-shift from a teacher owned and directed model for education to a student-centered model. Having been in the business for 40 years, I fear it will take quite a while.”

Some of the Maine Department of Education’s plans, particularly the policy-driven aspects, won’t begin until at least 2013.

More details may emerge at a work session with the Legislature’s Education Committee scheduled for Wednesday morning.

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