Commissioner unveils education plan
Students will play a more active role in organizing their own learning and have more choice—such as internships, inter-disciplinary classes, independent study, and vocational education—in how they learn and achieve standards, according to a strategic plan for education unveiled by Maine’s education commissioner.
Stephen Bowen unveiled his much-anticipated plan, “Education Evolving: Maine’s Plan for Putting Learners First,” on January 17 at the Capital Area Technical Center in Augusta. He shared the spotlight with five students from four schools who spoke about their own educational experiences in classrooms where they had a say in determining their own educational path.
“Governor LePage made it clear to me from the start that he wants an educational system that put kids first, a system where kids are at the center,” Bowen said. “That is the direction that we are proposing to go in.”
The plan lays out five core priority areas, each with four tenets or strategies for improving the educational experiences of Maine students. The first three core priorities—Effective, Learner-Centered Instruction; Great Teachers and Leaders; and Multiple Pathways for Learner Achievement—outline the need for rigorous standards and instructional practices that customize learning for each student.
By putting students in control of more aspects of their education, teachers would be freed up to focus on the individual needs of all students and work with them to build learning plans that engage them and are paced appropriately. In this proficiency-based system, students can show they’ve met the standards in multiple ways.
“If a student is learning and demonstrating understanding of an algebra concept in an automotive class at a Career and Technical Education center, why would we make the student go back to his or her regular high school and sit in an algebra class to learn the same thing?” Bowen said. “Let’s allow students more flexibility to learn in ways that engage them: a combination of classes, CTE, internships and other experiences.”
At younger levels, students might learn through a combination of experimentation, online learning, field trips, textbook exercises and group projects. Bowen challenged the notion that all students who enter kindergarten at the same time should go through 13 years of school learning the same material at the same pace as their classmates. “That just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
As part of the transition to a proficiency-based model of education, the plan addresses the need for improved assessment systems. Maine is a lead state in the SMARTER Balanced assessment consortium, which is developing assessments to measure higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills, not simply rote memorization, and to provide timely feedback that can inform classroom instruction.
More effective teacher-evaluation systems developed in collaboration with teachers are central to the Great Teachers and Leaders section of the plan. These systems must provide clear standards to teachers, measure them fairly and provide feedback for continuous growth and improvement. Teachers and administrators at a handful of Maine schools are already working on such systems.
In an era of limited resources, Bowen said he wants the Maine Department of Education to leverage its resources to support teachers and education leaders by facilitating professional development through an online Communities of Practice collaboration platform. The platform, which is already under development, will allow educators and Education Department staff to share best practices and materials, such as lesson plans and instructional tools. The last two priority areas are:
Comprehensive School and Community Supports, including health and wellness and community partnerships, and access to internships, apprenticeships and other opportunities to learn in workplace settings, apply academic lessons and explore potential career fields; and
Coordinated and Effective State Support, which calls on the Education Department to better integrate student learning from early childhood education to post-high school learning, to review the way in which it provides financial and other support to schools, make better use of technology to streamline district reporting requirements and to develop a new accountability system to replace the one required under the unfair and unrealistic federal No Child Left Behind Act.
In the plan, Bowen makes the case that change is needed to advance student achievement. While Maine exceeds national averages in test scores and graduation rates, test scores have remained essentially flat and still nearly 20 percent of students who enter ninth grade will not graduate four years later.
Moreover, initiatives in recent decades have not made things better. High-stakes testing and federal accountability have moved schools to focus on the tested subjects of English and math to the exclusion of others—and still not made a difference.
“What we’ve been doing hasn’t worked, despite the dedication and hard work of Maine’s educators,” Bowen said. “We haven’t moved the needle. The system is standing in the way of students, teachers and leaders.”
Not surprisingly, students feel unengaged at school. Studies show they are bored and do not see the relevance of what they are learning to them or their futures. Teachers are discouraged and frustrated in an environment that focuses on the wrong measures of accountability. The structure of the current education system, established in the late 1800s, is no longer capable of meeting the needs of today’s students, Bowen said.
Some aspects of the plan would require legislation, but many would be implemented through collaboration with and support for willing school districts, many of which are already leading in areas such as developing proficiency-based systems and new teacher-evaluation systems.
“In many ways we are taking our lead from the districts out there that are already doing this work,” Bowen said. “What we want to do is to help find those schools of excellence, the teachers that are making a huge difference, and share what they are doing with schools across the state. And we want to put an end to flipping from one initiative to another and help create some stability for districts that are looking to the state for steady support for programs that work.”
Bowen called his plan a first draft and a working document, saying he plans to do a round of regional visits to educators across the state to seek feedback on the plan. Bowen conducted a “listening tour” almost immediately after being named commissioner in March 2011, visiting schools and meeting with educators, students, parents and others throughout the state to gather information and ideas for the plan.
The public is invited to read the draft strategic plan and join an online discussion about the plan at www.maine.gov/education/plan.