AUBURN — The state education chief's proposal to emphasize real-life learning and use more technology in classrooms drew praise Tuesday from local school officials.
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen's report did not include any new mandates for schools but called for more flexibility to try new methods.
“I like his proactive look at education in the state," Poland-based RSU 16 Superintendent Dennis Duquette said. "I agree with him. We do need a new set of skills.” Too many students are bored in school, he said.
Bowen said in the 35-page report that Maine's high school graduation rate of 82 percent remains unacceptably low and test-based accountability efforts don't work.
He called on schools to give students more control and choice in how they learn and to make learning more individualized, with teachers acting as coaches.
He proposed more "anytime, anywhere" education, with expanded access to digital learning. Technology could help give students customized learning. Schools should implement “proficiency based-learning,” which means allowing students to learn and progress at their own pace.
Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin said proficiency-based learning could end conventional grade-grouping.
“It would be a group of teachers in charge of a group of students,” Grondin said. “The vision is not having grades; you're not in grade 1 for 175 days. It's, 'What are the learning targets for you? And I'm (the teacher who's) going to help facilitate that.' It's allowing students to move at their own pace.”
Auburn is already on the path outlined by Bowen, Grondin said. “We're pleased at the direction of the state. We're doing a lot of the work he's outlining.”
The Auburn School Department has given iPad tablet computers to all kindergarten students to help individualize learning, and has implemented expeditionary "real-life" learning at the middle school.
But what Bowen is talking about “is a huge shift," Grondin said. "It's going to take time."
Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster called Bowen's plan impressive and ambitious. “Whether it's all achievable is open to question, but it's a great first step.”
Webster said Bowen is calling for “mass customized learning,” which is using technology for individualized lessons.
“Giving iPads to kindergarten students in Auburn is an example of that,” Webster said.
He agreed that students need more say and choices in their education, and that is beginning to happen. Students already know their test scores and their targets, he said.
“Martel Elementary is experimenting with students leading parent-teacher conferences," Webster said. "We're also looking to expand (the alternative) Lewiston Academy, have more in-school suspension programs.”
But giving students a bigger say must come with a good deal of public education, Webster said. Parents have to be on board, “or there's going to be backlash.”
Regional School Unit 16's Duquette said Poland Regional High School is doing some of what Bowen is calling for, but there's more to be done.
The high school has standards-based learning in which students progress when they've mastered what they need. Sometimes they need more time, sometimes less. “It's like taking a driver's test," Duquette said. "You may pass the first time; I may fail the first time but pass the second.”
Standards-based learning in Poland means students meet with their advisers every day to talk about goals. “That allows them to get to know the students well,” Duquette said. Students are given individual projects and internships to meet their goals.
But Duquette said his school is hampered by regulations. Students in the 10th grade at 11th-grade levels “are still confined to that grade,” he said.
Bowen's plan would mean more online courses and technology, which would engage more students and allow greater access to more courses, he said.
But change is difficult, Duquette said, adding that his district will be working on a new strategic vision. It will involve the School Committee, staff and townspeople in the RSU 16 towns of Poland, Minot and Mechanic Falls “to really talk about what our kids need. It's going to be a huge change.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.