June 20, 2018
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If we’re going to reform education in Maine, vague-sounding reforms won’t help

By William J. Murphy, Special to the BDN

“High schools are transitioning.” Students will have more “choices about how they acquire and demonstrate learning.” “Students will join integrated learning communities.” “Students will contribute to online discussion boards.” “This move is sending a powerful message.” “We get it, but not only do we get it, we’re rewarding it.”

Those statements all describe the recently announced transition of the University of Maine at Presque Isle to an education system that uses “proficiency-based learning” to reflect changes taking place at high schools across Maine.

But, what? The language used by University of Maine at Presque Isle leaders and other educational leaders to describe the change does not clarify. It only obfuscates, raising far more questions than it answers.

High schools are transitioning from what to what? Students already have choices? How many more choices do they need? Integrated learning communities: Do you mean classrooms? Online discussion boards: So they’ll be writing? What message exactly is this move sending? And what exactly do we get, and how are we rewarding it?

People in education should know better. The English language, after all, with its rules and its capabilities, is in their keeping, and they should as much as possible keep it uncorrupted. They should see to it that the language serves only the gods of truth and beauty and not the demons of slovenliness and vagary.

Yet clearly the people in education do not know better. In fact, the decay of language is nowhere more evident than in the movement to reform education.

The Feb. 13 BDN article describing the University of Maine at Presque Isle’s move to proficiency-based education is so full of vague and slovenly words, phrases and sentences that I, for one, can glean no meaning from it. The new learning model, for example, is called “proficiency-based education.” What does that mean and how is it new?

I have been teaching English for over 30 years and, in all that time, I have never aimed at anything less than proficiency, which I take to mean competence. No teacher, I am sure, has ever rewarded a student for his or her incompetence. So what’s new at the University of Maine at Presque Isle? The college’s president, Linda Schott, admits that the details of how this new model will look have yet to be worked out.

Instead of simply receiving a grade, we are told, University of Maine at Presque Isle students will have to show that they have met some proficiency standard, and that they might show they have met that standard by writing a paper.

First of all, no student today simply receives a grade. They earn grades through academic work, such as, yes, writing a paper, taking an exam or participating in class. High-quality work earns the student a high grade; low-quality work earns the student a low grade. This is how traditional education works, and I fail to see how these proposed reforms, “proficiency-based education,” will improve on this method. Writing papers is still crucial.

Yet J. Duke Albanese, senior policy advisor for the Great Schools Partnership, a nonprofit educational organization, warns us that we should cooperate with these reforms.

“This is something that is not going to go away,” Albanese, a former state education commissioner, said at the University of Maine at Presque Isle’s announcement. “This,” I take it, refers to proficiency-based education, but is its persistence, its stubbornness, reason enough to submit to it? I think not.

I am not against reform. None of us in the teaching profession are.

In fact, we adapt, refine, improve and reform our lessons every day so that they work better, more proficiently. But we need reforms that make sense, that we can understand. We all want better schools, improved educational systems, but we should not discard traditional methods simply because someone in power says that the new method is better — no matter how vaguely, how slovenly, that new method is defined or described.

William J. Murphy teaches English and history at Belfast Area High School.


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