ORONO, Maine — Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen advised education students at the University of Maine on Wednesday to be open to new ways of teaching and engaging their students that might seem radical to some.
Bowen spoke to future educators enrolled in an intensive one-year master of arts in teaching program, which certifies graduates to teach grades 7-12.
Earlier this year, the commissioner released a plan that calls for drastic changes to the way Maine students learn. The report calls for a new look at how students advance through school — basing their advancement on performance and mastery of material rather than putting them through to the next age-based grade level once the school year ends.
Bowen said students have been shepherded from one grade level to the next based on average scores, meaning, for example, they might have performed well in social studies but struggled in math. The students don’t benefit by being pushed to the next math course before they’re prepared, he argued.
“We’ve got this curriculum that’s kind of a mile wide and an inch deep,” Bowen said.
Schools also need to be prepared for students who excel and make opportunities available for them to challenge themselves and continue advancing, he said.
“What happens if this kid blows through your entire math curriculum by sophomore year?” Bowen asked, arguing that schools need to adapt programs to become more flexible and allow students to enroll in higher-level courses or stay to get more experience with lower-level classes if needed.
Bowen cited Gray-New Gloucester Middle School as an example of this new way of educating students as they advance through the school system — a place where students of different grade levels are placed in classes based on their proficiencies in subjects.
The commissioner also used the example of a new partnership among Hermon High School, United Technologies Center, Eastern Maine Community College and UMaine that will allow 15 Hermon high schoolers to earn up to 29.5 college credits — at a significant cost savings — during their junior and senior years and summer vacations.
Bowen said changes to the education system will meet resistance from some parents, administrators and teachers.
“If you’re not averaging grades, that means you’re not ranking kids in your class, which means there’s no valedictorian anymore,” Bowen said.
Teachers and administrators will need to be the ones to ease those concerns by showing that the new way of teaching will work, he argued.
Students in the graduate course that Bowen spoke to Wednesday already have earned four-year college degrees in fields ranging from pre-law to mechanical engineering, but some told Bowen they were drawn to teaching because they wanted to effect change in their communities in a different way.
The commissioner urged the future teachers to work hard to keep students engaged and interested in school by finding unique ways to involve them in the topics they’re learning about.
“Nothing in the school affects student achievement more than having an effective teacher,” Bowen said. “These teachers-in-training and I got to talk about teachers as ‘education managers’ and how we build a system in which students are engaged and at the center of every decision made.”