Gov. Paul LePage’s recent threat to close schools May 1 overshadowed another story about education. That story was Education Commissioner Steve Bowen’s plan to recalibrate the state’s K-12 public education system. It’s a plan worthy of consideration.
Commissioner Bowen is an adherent of the so-called market-based approach to education. He supports a system in which parents can choose the school their child attends, which he believes will force underperforming schools to shape up. He also wants to see more merit-based pay for teachers, based on more frequent, more sophisticated student testing.
Those positions carry plenty of political static, but to dismiss his views and this plan would miss an opportunity to have a frank discussion about how our public schools operate.
Education should be built around students, Mr. Bowen says, an obvious point, but one that is often lost within the multitiered educational bureaucracy. Mr. Bowen, a former middle school teacher in Camden, knows how easily learning becomes secondary to other concerns.
Mr. Bowen asks a key question about K-12 education: “Is the architecture of the system good for kids?” It’s a question school administrators, local school boards, teachers and the Maine Education Association should join him in asking. So much of the structure of public education harks back to the 19th century. What can be jettisoned and what should remain?
Though it might cause logistical nightmares for schools, Mr. Bowen asks why students are classified by age rather than ability. If a 12-year-old is reading well above her grade level, she might better be grouped with 13-year-old and 14-year-olds who are reading and discussing Shakespeare plays.
Digital learning — using stand-alone computers which can walk a student through a lesson, repeating what he or she struggled to master, and computers that can be linked with those of other students and teachers across the state — has enormous potential. Schools have gained significant ground since laptops were put in the hands of students, but even more can be done, Mr. Bowen rightfully asserts.
Yet another way schools can become more student-centered is to switch to shorter duration classes, allowing students to study more diverse subjects. In such a system, teachers become more like educational counselors or coaches and less like pedants.
Internships outside the building should become more common, he believes, and students should have the opportunity to earn some post-secondary credits in a fifth year of high school or if they graduate after four years.
A very critical component of this reconsideration is to build in many more “check-out” lanes, some leading to four-year colleges, some to community colleges, technical schools, apprenticeships and employer-run training programs.
The Bowen plan is more like a vision statement than a policy initiative. It’s an intentionally bold attempt to shake up conventional thinking about our public elementary, middle and high schools. Of course, many hundreds of teachers, administrators and school board members already do such innovative thinking in our schools, and the plan should not be seen as an indictment of them. In fact, Mr. Bowen says, the Department of Education should be understood as a resource. As he says, “We don’t operate any schools.”
Despite the sound and fury of the governor’s pronouncements, there is fresh thinking coming out of the administration which should challenge the status quo; not all the ideas are workable or desirable, but they deserve to be considered.