Schools need confidence

Posted Jan. 08, 2011, at 12:23 a.m.

The column “School consolidation not ‘stalled’” in the Dec. 30 Bangor Daily News reminds us of the negativity and defensiveness that have infiltrated the Maine education and policy communities. Written by Education Commissioner Angela Faherty, the column argues with faint evidence that the reorganization law — the legislation that convinced so many Mainers not to reorganize — is not broken.

It’s time we put behind us the recriminations about past policies and put our energies into making every one of our schools the best it can be. With shrinking fiscal and human resources, this task will require all our energies and considerable good will.

Gov. Paul LePage, our new legislative leadership and our statewide organizations seem poised to bring both a new austerity and a new optimism to public education. We in the towns and cities know that we have fewer resources — personally, for our property taxes; and collectively, for our school budgets. What disheartens so many of us — and particularly those who work in schools — is that Augusta has continued to load on the regulations, expectations and administrative letters when they know our schools cannot deliver on every one of these demands.

We need Gov. LePage both to wisely govern and to have confidence that we and our schools can still deliver, even under these difficult conditions. Even as he redirects educational resources, he can ensure that kids, teachers and classrooms are the last to suffer.

The governor can ensure that the Department of Education casts off its tired, bureaucratic mindset and redefines itself as a resource to communities and schools. A first step is to promise that no new regulations will be pushed onto the schools until the already untenable fog of requirements is reduced to those that matter most for kids and for efficient management.

Both the governor and Legislature need to demonstrate faith — realistic faith, not blind faith — in the parents, municipal leaders and educators who do the heavy lifting for schools. The state has proved that it alone cannot “cure” schools. State leaders, however, play a crucial role inspiring educators and residents alike to believe we can improve.

We have an excellent set of goals and learning standards. State leadership needs to “sell” these over and over to our legislators, residents and educators. Most importantly, they must avoid prescribing how to attain these high standards and show confidence that teachers, parents and students can reach them.

Gone are the days when “the experts” rose to the top of the hierarchy. In the information age — and particularly in education, social service and health care — the experts are at the point of delivery: the classroom, the home visit, the examination room. Solutions to difficult problems require, as they always have, creative, energetic and committed Mainers working hard in their communities and schools. In 2011, the information and connectivity we need are available to us when and where we need them. We do not need one-size-fits-all “answers” dictated to us by the administration or Legislature.

Ms. Faherty’s column was just one more example of what the LePage and Cutler campaigns demonstrated: State government has crawled into a shell over the past decade and has frittered away the trust of the people of Maine. Most of all, state education leaders must re-establish trust — trust between themselves and local residents and educators; and trust in our system.

That will require not initiating new laws or policies that further exhaust us. It will require inspiring us to be creative in our own search for solutions. It will require placing resources smartly, where they can support those solutions. It will require innovative approaches to school funding and resource equalization. And it will require re-establishing relationships with educators and municipal leaders in every corner of the state.

Gordon Donaldson is a professor of education emeritus at the University of Maine and an educational consultant.

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