Joseph Makley: Maine schools need to change

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Maine schools are working to improve, but recent Sun Journal correspondence has suffered from a misconception, which is to conflate the policies of the “accountability” movement (shame, blame, threats, punitive measures and privatization) with the policies of the broader reform movement (capacity building, standards, proficiency-based systems, personalized learning, charter schools, online and blended classes, etc.).

As they are entwined in statute, the latter is vulnerable to collateral harm from justifiable outrage at the former.

One thing is very clear from the research: Punitive accountability is ineffective. It does not drive change at the system level.

It is not necessary to attach punitive measures to needed changes, and (as we saw recently with consolidation) it is more likely to put them at risk. The current A-F Grading system is an example of this. It uses potentially helpful data in a harmful way.

On the other hand, the shift to proficiency-based systems is worth supporting. It will not be a classroom miracle, but it can lead to more personalized instruction with clearer, more timely feedback for students. It will also lead to much fairer grading practices, and help to curtail the awarding of credit where it isn’t earned.

Teachers are unique individuals with strong preferences and beliefs, but that shouldn’t be a factor in the assessment of students’ academic performance. Grades should be for core knowledge and skill, demonstrated effectively, not for unique combinations of points based in part on punishments for behavior, attendance, social skills, nice notebook covers or who knows what. It is a difficult change to make, more so where the DOE lacks the capacity to supply it in kit form, but the state is right to insist on it.

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We have had standards documents for decades, always with the same flaws — full of jargon, not parent-friendly, too big, too many topics (just like textbooks.) Teachers prioritize, slice, dice and do what it takes.

In spite of the valid criticisms, national level standards such as the Common Core are useful, not only for small states like Maine, but for content providers and institutions that serve students from more than one state. The CCSS is just a list of statements like “Know the formulas for the volumes of cylinders, cones and spheres …” The effects of standards for good or ill have been overstated, but they are part of the solution and should not be seen as a threat.

Standardized tests have rightly been tainted by their association with accountability policies, but I feel that “opting out” is an over-reaction, for a couple of reasons:

• First, a national test gives useful, more objective information to see how well students are doing;

• Second, schools do need a way to show improvement that is perceived to be objective and comparable across the country.

The time students spend taking large-scale standardized tests (2-4 days per year) has not changed much since the No.2 pencil era. Contrary to reports, the Smarter Balanced test does not profile or collect personal data. The backlash against “testing mania” has more to do with teachers being broadly pressured over test results in the name of “accountability,” which is a misuse of the test. They can use the results to improve instruction, and this is being done in non-punitive ways.

I think a larger worry is the lack of a state test for civics and U.S. history. A short exit test (similar to the U.S. citizenship test, but more thorough) would address a legitimate state interest.

Federal overreach is occurring in schools, but it is in the mandated reporting and the ever more prescriptive requirements, not in the SBAC test or the Common Core. The best way to work against it is through our federal delegation.

Maine schools do need to change. They have not gone downhill, but their mission, the population and the times are different.

Some necessary characteristics for school improvement are intrinsic motivation of teachers and students, a process for getting better, opportunities to learn from colleagues and work as teams, clearer feedback for students, and a school culture of high expectations that supports these practices and includes all constituents.

The best state policies are those (like the proficiency-based transition and others) that support this difficult work. I am all for “stopping the madness” of shame and blame politics, but there are those (including some educators) who would use that sentiment to halt the process of reform altogether. Buying into that would be a mistake.

Joseph Makley served in Maine schools as a teacher and administrator for 29 years, including curriculum director at MSAD 36 and 39, Jay School department, and most recently at RSU5 (Durham, Freeport, and Pownal). He lives in West Paris.

 
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