September 23, 2019
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Common Core isn’t the answer to Maine’s educational challenges

Brian Feulner | BDN
Brian Feulner | BDN
Deer Isle - Stonington High School students Morgan Shepard (left) and Kasi Billings work on their senior projects during their Senior Exhibition class Sept. 24 in Deer Isle. The students are part of Project Launch.

The BDN’s support of the Common Core State Standards, a set of parameters designed by private-sector interests, promoted through bureaucratic processes and administered in an ad hoc fashion, is disappointing.

While education reform is needed to mitigate differences in student achievement across regional, class and racial categories, the Common Core standards have little to do with educational best practices and owe significant credit for their implementation to ideologues and lobbyists.

The state of public education has been an issue of concern and an area of federal policy interest for decades. However, successive efforts at reform have been proposed, partially implemented, and withdrawn by politicians and social critics across the political spectrum with little positive impact on achievement and without much success at restructuring educational institutions. The Common Core standards fall soundly in the context of historical top-down solutions to perceived educational failings and, like most preceding reform initiatives, they assume that problems can be solved through central planning without regard to the variety of social, intellectual and cultural issues at play across the country.

The CCSS propose to rectify perceived declines in student achievement by integrating rigorous assessments with improved methods of instruction. These reforms are intended to challenge students, prepare a modern workforce and economize resources. The problems with the Common Core do not lie with these laudable goals. They are found in its underlying beliefs that American students are failing and that schools alone can overcome student deficiencies, that the purpose of formal education is to produce a labor force rather than an educated citizenry and in its premise that a self-appointed elite should be empowered to make educational decisions for citizens who have neither elected nor employed them to do so. None of these presumptions is patently true, and none of the problems that the Common Core standards seek to address are unequivocally soluble by the kinds of reforms promoted.

The adoption of the Common Core in Maine has been coercive. The BDN states in its Dec. 5 editorial, “the federal government has never required that states adopt any set of standards,” but that statement ignores the budgetary power the federal government wields over state funding (about 10 percent of all education funds in the state of Maine) and the soft power of the federal system, which exercises influence over the national conversation on education and has the authority to control numerous agencies that affect state policies.

That the BDN does not recognize the influence of Washington over state policies and that it does not question the motives of those who lobby for educational reform reflects a complacency antithetical to educational inquiry.

There are important questions that policymakers should have asked before adopting the Common Core and that states and citizens confronted by CCSS mandates should ask of their schools and government officials: Is there, in fact, a decline in performance among American students and students in Maine, or are we educating and assessing more students so that our surveillance of educational inequity is better? If there are declines, are they uniform or are there specific areas of concern? Can schools overcome student deficiencies, especially given the powerful role of socioeconomic status and educational culture? Is the purpose of public education vocational? If so, do we even know what jobs will be available to our children and how to educate for them? Are the standards’ emphasis on literacy and problem-solving effective at developing better learners? And, do the self-appointed developers of the Common Core have the expertise necessary to guide educational policy?

The school districts and the teachers of Maine have worked hard to accommodate the Common Core initiative.

Although the BDN states that “Maine’s schools have now fully implemented the Common Core,” in reality this implementation has been hit-or-miss and the Maine Department of Education does not possess the staff or authority to audit school practices to ensure even compliance with the standards.

Despite the best intentions of school districts and individual educators, the Common Core is, at best, an experiment. As a result, in a state renowned for its natural beauty, our children have seen recess cut in order to accommodate new standards (while obesity and anxiety rates soar). Early elementary students spend less time at play and more time on drill. Children are pressured to develop transition and professional plans at increasingly younger ages and are told (as are teachers, schools and communities) that they are failing, falling behind and uncompetitive despite their hard work.

Whether or not you generally approve of Gov. Paul LePage’s policy decisions on education issues, his statements describing the evolution of his opinion on the Common Core indicate a level of reflection that is absent from the BDN’s editorial stance that suggests that the Common Core State Standards are necessary, appropriate and actionable. Nothing in their development or implementation suggests that the citizens of Maine should be sanguine about the Common Core’s potential impact.

Geoff Wingard is co-chair of the history department at Bangor High School, an adjunct instructor of history and education at the University of Maine, and a former school board chair. This essay does not represent the opinion of the Bangor School Department.

 



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