A potentially harmful fight is brewing over Maine’s education standards, which are used in 45 states and the District of Columbia. Maine residents should ignore petitions that would put a question to voters in November 2014 about whether to repeal the academic benchmarks by which public school students are taught.
The standards, approved by the Maine Legislature in 2010 under the Common Core State Standards Initiative, set basic objectives for what students in kindergarten to grade 12 should know at each stage of their education.
By the end of grade two, for example, students should be able to meet the reading standard of describing how characters in a story respond to major events and challenges. By the end of fifth grade, students should meet the math standard of being able to multiply multi-digit whole numbers.
These are two of many standards in English language arts and math that were developed by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers based on the real-world skills that students will need once they graduate and enter college or start a career.
The Common Core replaced a patchwork of state expectations with standards that are research-based and set to international benchmarks. With schools in nearly every state using the Common Core, students’ progress and proficiency can be more accurately compared. With one set of standards, it’s also easier to share what works. If teachers in Maine have great lessons, they can share them with teachers in California.
More importantly, if students are expected to meet rigorous standards, they’ll be better prepared to fend for themselves in a global economy where they’ll be competing for work against and collaborating with students in Singapore, Hong Kong and Finland.
The Maine Equal Rights Center and a group called No Common Core Maine are trying to eliminate the Common Core because they want to “restore local control.” The initiative appears to be an extension of efforts supported by the Heritage Foundation, a national conservative organization, and other groups with a conservative or libertarian bent like the Goldwater Institute, Hoover Institute, Friedman Foundation, Eagle Forum and the CATO Institute. The Pioneer Institute in Boston wants states to develop rigorous standards like the ones Massachusetts used to have. (That state adopted Common Core.)
The groups are painting the Common Core as an example of government overreach. No Common Core Maine, for example, states one of its goals is to, “Regain control of education from Washington, private corporations, centrally controlled non-government organizations and partnerships and return it to our local communities.” While it’s an idea that may resonate with some, the specifics of how, exactly, the Common Core is eroding local control are unclear, especially since more standards are still being developed.
The Common Core outlines learning expectations — which are far clearer and more specific than Maine’s former standards. Teachers and schools choose how to meet them with their locally developed curriculums. Contrary to what Maine’s opposition groups claim, the Common Core does not dictate curriculum. Local districts determine materials and instructional approaches. They can also add standards of their own, such as requiring students to study local issues — perhaps their hometown’s history.
Maine’s opposition groups say they want higher standards, but it’s not clear exactly how they should be higher. (Again, local districts can adopt more stringent standards on their own.) But the fight hasn’t centered on specific standards that should be replaced. Rather, it’s been about control and subverting the federal government — which didn’t develop the Common Core.
It would be incredibly damaging to reverse course on Maine’s standards now after districts have spent time reconfiguring their instruction and grading.
Instead of going backward, the state should instead spend its energy on how to effectively measure whether instruction is working and whether students are meeting benchmarks. Starting with the class of 2015, students must demonstrate whether they’re meeting certain standards in order to earn a high school diploma, under legislation passed in 2012 and signed by Gov. Paul LePage. Districts must develop systems to measure that proficiency, and they will need help, not distractions.
The point of proficiency-based learning — championed by Republicans, Democrats and independents alike — is to get away from a system in which students move from grade to grade without mastering the material. Determining whether they understand the lessons requires a broad set of high standards, to ensure consistency.
Of course, standards alone will not improve education.
Schools need excellent teachers to help students achieve their best, and they need programs to further teachers’ development. Schools need parent involvement, extra resources for struggling students, healthy food, opportunities for athletic and artistic expression, and safe facilities.
What they certainly don’t need is a pedantic, political fight to make their work more challenging than it already is.