February 23, 2020
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If LePage backs away from Common Core, he endangers important school reforms

Robert F. Bukaty | BDN
Robert F. Bukaty | BDN
A school bus passes a silhouette of a moose in front of the Blue Moose restaurant on Rte. 1 in Monticello, Maine.

If Gov. Paul LePage affixed a Facebook label to his relationship with the Common Core State Standards, “it’s complicated” would sum it up.

LePage came into office in January 2011 and signed the set of academic expectations for K-12 students in math and English into law three months later. The decision wasn’t controversial. Maine’s then-Republican Legislature agreed without objection to adopt the new standards. Today, Maine joins 42 other states and Washington, D.C., in using the Common Core standards, which lay out by grade level the math and English skills students are expected to master.

Although two states — Indiana and Oklahoma — have formally dropped the standards after adopting them, this marks the first time a substantial number of states have held their students to academic expectations that are consistent across state lines. That’s a common-sense goal considering the wide disparities in state standards that existed beforehand.

But as opposition to Common Core has swelled, especially on the right, LePage’s position on the standards has become less clear. “I don’t believe in Common Core,” he told Bloomberg News in September 2013. “I believe in raising the standards in education.”

That same month, LePage issued an executive order prohibiting the state Department of Education from adopting any set of academic standards required by the federal government. The order also required that any changes to Maine’s academic standards be done “through a transparent public rulemaking process that allows Maine people ample time and opportunity to review proposed changes and provide feedback.”

Since the federal government has never required that states adopt any set of standards, and since changes to standards are already carried out through a rulemaking process that includes opportunities for public comment, the order was effectively meaningless. Nevertheless, it offered a chance for LePage to make a statement to his anti-Common Core supporters: He would stand up to intrusion into education by the federal government.

In September of this year, LePage’s Department of Education appointed a 24-member panel to comb through each of the academic standards for math and English, evaluating them for rigor and clarity and recommending revisions.

And as he ran for re-election this fall, LePage told WABI-TV, “I no longer support Common Core.” He reiterated his support for rigorous standards, but he offered no clear statement on the direction in which he’d like to take the state’s schools.

Maine’s schools have now fully implemented the Common Core — after three separate changes to Maine’s standards since 2007. Teachers are using the standards to inform curriculum and lesson plans. And there are several other changes afoot in the state’s schools that are connected to the new standards.

Under state law, by 2017, students who graduate from Maine high schools will earn a diploma only if they can demonstrate they’ve mastered each standard. Starting next year, teachers’ job performance will be judged in part on their students’ standards mastery. And this spring, Maine students will take a new standardized test that will specifically test their grasp of the Common Core standards.

Those are significant changes that affect how teachers do their jobs each day in the classroom. They’re changes that demand attention and careful implementation.

The Common Core standards aren’t perfect, and some tweaks could be in order. But the more LePage and others criticize the Common Core standards themselves, the more uncertainty they sow among teachers that Maine’s standards could again shift. And the likely effect of that is to stall the implementation of important and promising education reforms that ride on the Common Core.

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