October 22, 2018
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Maine’s schools need a chance for improvements to work.

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
In this Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017 photo, buses await students at York Middle School in York, Maine. A shortage of school bus drivers in some communities in New England and across the country is causing headaches for school districts this fall.

Maine schools are stuck.

The one nationwide test that allows for state-by-state comparisons among students shows Maine students’ performance in math and reading has barely budged in more than 10 years while other states have closed the gap that once existed between Maine and much of the rest of the country.

But the lack of improvement does not come from a lack of trying.

Over the years, educators in Maine’s schools have faced what a special legislative task force in 2016 called a “barrage” of initiatives aimed at improving education in the state. Rather than improve education, however, constantly changing initiatives and performance targets made it more difficult to do just that, the task force looking into issues of school leadership concluded.

“School leaders are expected to ‘implement’ these policies,” the task force wrote in its report. “They tell us that it is exceedingly difficult to lead reform when the sand is constantly shifting under them.”

Here’s a sampling of that shifting sand.

— The standardized test the state uses to determine how well students are performing has changed four times in the last decade. During one recent three-year stretch, students took a different test each year, making it impossible to determine if students made progress from year to year.

— The criteria against which students’ performance is measured have also changed. The state changed the academic standards on which teachers should be basing their instruction three times in the past decade. Standards detail what students should know and be able to do at each grade level in each subject area.

— The state has struggled to settle on a course for ensuring students graduate from high school only after they’ve mastered the state’s academic standards. In 2007, the Department of Education pulled the plug on a multi-year initiative under which teachers in each school district were developing “local assessments,” which were supposed to offer a variety of ways for students to demonstrate they had mastered course material, such as projects, portfolios and exams.

— For the past few years, schools have been working to implement proficiency-based diplomas, which are supposed to show that students have mastered the required skills in each academic area before they graduate. In some schools, teachers are changing how they teach in response, orienting their classrooms more around independent student projects than around classroom lectures. According to teachers, however, the implementation across the state is uneven.

The push for proficiency-based diplomas is actually the latest effort to bring a 20-year-old state policy full circle. In 1997, the Maine Legislature passed the state’s first formal set of academic standards, the Maine Learning Results, into law. Since then, many of the state’s various education policy initiatives have been efforts to make those standards meaningful — to ensure that students meet those expectations before earning a high school diploma.

The stop-start nature of those efforts, however, has left a bad taste in the mouths of many educators. While teachers, administrators, school districts, the Department of Education and the Maine Legislature have devoted substantial energy over the past five years — and, in some districts, even longer periods — to making proficiency-based diplomas a reality, there’s a lingering sense in many teachers’ minds that direction will change again in a few years.

In response to a BDN Maine Focus survey sent to teachers through the Maine Education Association, several teachers expressed their support for proficiency-based education and the rigorous standards underlying them. But the skepticism about their staying power was evident.

“[L]ike most initiatives, after five-plus years of work, it will probably disappear soon,” wrote one teacher.

So far, it hasn’t, and state lawmakers have reaffirmed their support for proficiency-based diplomas recently since passing the initial policy requiring them in 2012.

The 2016 school leadership task force recommended that lawmakers apply a litmus test to any education policy proposal that comes before them: ensure that the policy is backed up by evidence showing its “high likelihood” of improving student outcomes, and ensure there are sufficient resources for implementing it.

Maine needs to see its schools improve so its graduates are better prepared for what comes next. Maine’s schools need a chance to let so-called improvements work.

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