Jim Perkins: Challenges ahead for public education

Recently, I experienced my final day of 25 years teaching math at Lewiston High School. There were moments, of course, but most of the days were a positive challenge as we strove with optimism to help students grow to a higher level of skills and understanding. It has been a wonderful career for me to work with several thousand of the city’s youth and hundreds of colleagues.

But I wish I felt more positive about public education at this time. I think there are many challenges looming, some of our own creation and some from on-high.

Here in Lewiston, the high school took on a measuring-by-rubric model as part of its effort to be re-accredited, and now that questionable concept has been recast as a high-stakes, but still vague, standard for graduation.

At the time, two or three years ago, teachers were never asked, “Is this a good idea?” but only (and with pressure) to say yes, “For the sake of the school being re-accredited, will you say you can live with it?”

At the time it was not presented as a requirement for graduation, but merely a way to say we structure our program.

I hope the School Committee takes a very critical second look at this new proposal.

How could graduation by rubric possibly be devised to be meaningful, accurate and provide a valid and fair measure for every single student? Are we really going to say, for example, that a student who passes all of his or her courses in all required subjects but is too shy to give a solid oral presentation using Power Point will not be allowed to graduate?

I think this focus will diminish our efforts at ensuring that students master the content of their courses and substitute generic standards that are more concerned with show than substance.

For most of the nation, the coming standards, known as the Common Core, are well-intended, of course, but good intentions are not enough. The model continues the harmful presumption of the now-defunct Maine Learning Results that all children are the same and should be expected to learn the same things at the same time. Once again, an arbitrary list of topics is being held as “the standard” for each and every single student.

If we don’t rethink that basic error, our schools will be doomed for another decade to the stagnation of treating every student as if he or she is average. The more able will languish, not well-served by a set of standards that are beneath their capacity. Those students who are more challenged and can’t meet an arbitrarily established norm will be labeled as failures.

At the same time, as we work to bring every single student to some standard on some abstract piece of mathematics rejected decades ago by the national association of math teachers, we won’t be teaching the skills more important to having a fulfilling life.

Our children are not widgets nor pieces of candy to be molded with a production line mentality. They are individuals who come to us from widely divergent circumstances and with widely different inherited and acquired abilities. They need to be met as individuals to have the best hope of helping each one optimize the chance for a good and productive life.

That is the society that we seek: one in which each individual's fulfillment enriches us all.

Jim Perkins has been a math teacher at Lewiston High School for the past 25 years. He is a resident of Wayne.

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Amy McDaniel's picture

Very well said.

Very well said, Jim. Thanks for being a mentor and support. I will greatly miss your presence.
I am glad that you are finding time to educate the public on the challenges that the public schools are facing. This isn't a reality for just Lewiston; this is happening across the country. Educators are not trusted to make decisions regarding the future course of public education, which I find very discouraging.

CRYSTAL WARD's picture

How true!!

The current drive to make every student fit in the "round hole" has no hope of working. All students will never be the same and will never be forced into one set of standards. When I retired five years ago the so called "high, rigorous" standards were really aimed at the ankles. Wasting millions of dollars to force all teachers to teach all students to do the same things at the same time will fail.


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