Maine teachers describe how standards-based education really works

Posted March 29, 2012, at 6:48 p.m.

ROCKPORT, Maine — The LePage administration and the Maine Department of Education have been advocating standards-based education in public schools.

So what does standards-based education actually look like?

Messalonskee High School math teacher Megan Childs has worked to integrate standards-based education in her classroom. In her class sessions, she organizes the desks in a U shape so everyone faces the board where she lectures. Everyone in the class starts with a math question that might resemble one on a standardized test. Then she begins her lecture.

Last year she might have seen some bored kids — the ones who already knew the math concept — zone out at this point. Now she sees them whip out their laptops.

“The kids who need my lecture listen and the kids who don’t need my lecture are listening to tutorials or reading ahead in the book,” Childs told a group of her peers at a conference Thursday at the Samoset Resort.

Childs keeps a website for her classes where she posts online lectures from Khan Academy — a free website with education videos. If a student is ahead, he or she may watch Khan Academy tutorials and work out of the textbook.

It wasn’t easy at first, she said. She has to constantly monitor each child’s progress.

“Some kids at first were trying to go ahead and couldn’t, so we had to talk about that. It requires constant check-ins. Sometimes you have to rein them back if they get too far ahead and aren’t really learning,” she said. “If I see a child who I know is at lecture-level with a laptop [out], I say, ‘un-uh. No. You’re with me.’ You need to know your kids.”

Standards-based education focuses on students achieving basic goals instead of grade levels and letter grades. When students achieve one goal, they move on to the next.

The standards-based system has worked particularly well for a couple of students, she said. One has been out sick for a long time, but because Childs posts all the lessons in a calendar online, the student can follow along with her coursework.

Another child didn’t like online learning. He is gifted in math but became disenchanted when asked to do online work to progress his skills. He was too young by normal school standards to be in Childs’ class, but the principal placed him there and asked her to get creative with him.

“This kid loves math, but he does not like being alone and he does not like being in front of a computer screen. Now he’s in this class where he challenges other kids and they challenge him. They get that interaction and when he needs to go ahead, he goes ahead. He was squelched last year but he’s enjoying math again.”

Standards-based education is designed to provide this flexibility, advocates say.

“We’ve been doing what we are doing for 120 years. We put a child in a box when he was 5. Then put him in another box when he was 6, another box when he was 7 — like a passenger in a car. A factory line. Move on whether you learned it or not,” said Don Siviski, the Maine Department of Education’s superintendent of instruction.

This, he said, means the students who don’t understand the concepts in class get frustrated and act out, creating discipline problems. The students who already know the concepts get bored and become disengaged in school.

Marisa Penney, a biology teacher at Massabesic High School, seemed skeptical about standards-based education at first.

Penney’s school district is implementing the system and she said it’s working well. But unlike math and English, where many students are at many different levels, Penney said it’s unlikely in science that the students know much of what she will teach ahead of time. For instance, she also offers the chance for her students to move at a faster pace than her lectures but for the most part that doesn’t happen.

So in Penney’s biology class, standards-based education mostly means allowing students to prove their knowledge in various ways.

At the beginning of each new topic, Penney goes over the learning goals and makes the students write the objectives in their own words. Then she lectures and conducts labs. To prove they know the material, each student gets a checklist.

At the conference Thursday, Penney pulled one a checklist that showed six different biology-related activities that students could pick from. It means the students have a choice; they don’t have to do the book work if they want to do another project to show they understand a concept, she said.

For Penney, grading is different in the standards-based system.

“If they chose to do a worksheet and it’s not 100 percent correct then they get it back and they need to fix it so I know they are getting the knowledge they need to and they show proficiency. Otherwise they won’t move on,” she said.

And what if they just don’t get the concept?

“If they spent too much time on a subject we talk about moving on for a while, but it’s an incomplete and we have to come back to it,” said Hope Herrick, an English teacher at Messalonskee High School.

Coming back to the concept might be during class time or after school. If the student is far behind his peers, he might be asked to attend summer school to catch up, Herrick said.

The conference Thursday brought in about 100 teachers, most from the midcoast. It was hosted by the Many Flags One Campus Foundation, which has the goal of putting a high school, vocational school and colleges in one building in the midcoast. Without state funding for the project yet, the nonprofit has been working to host educational forums in the area.

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