The problems outlined in your recent article “Lawmakers offer no clarity on Maine’s new graduation guidelines” (Feb. 21) may have come as a surprise to many readers, but not to older teachers.
In the late 1990s, Maine tried to put in place a standards-based educational program called Maine Learning Results. Like the proficiency-based system that is going to be put into operation this year, Maine Learning Results involved devising local assessments and objective grading practices, developing a records system and selecting a date (graduating class of 2008) when meeting all standards was to be a graduation requirement.
School districts held meeting after meeting to educate the public and teachers on what standards-based education meant, and teachers dedicated after-school hours and in-service days to develop the new curriculum and assessments. It was a contentious period filled with the type of conflict and internal struggles that any revolutionary change brings with it. Working relationships among educators were strained and rifts developed that would take years to heal.
It is hard to describe how betrayed the true believers felt when the Department of Education scrapped the whole program in 2003.
There were several reasons why Maine Learning Results failed, and why the present version will ultimately take the same path.
We have all been in the position of trying to meet a tough standard, and failing. Usually, if we want to succeed, we re-train, practice and try again. In education, this is called “remediation.”
While every school has a remediation plan, consider the depth of the problem. If, for example, you teach ninth-grade math, and you’re required to get your class to the point where they can solve for an unknown, it seems a simple thing to isolate the kids who can’t and give them more instruction.
What do you do, however, when those students are working at a fourth-grade math level? Remediating a lesson is easy, but remediating five years of math instruction is quite another thing. If you think that a secondary student with a fourth-grade grasp of math is unusual, consider that only 38 percent of Maine students in the last Maine Educational Assessment met standard expectations for proficiency in math! The story is the same in literacy and science education.
Each of Maine’s 242 school districts will approach standards-based education in a different way. Although the Department of Education has some general guidelines about what instruction and assessment should look like, they will not discredit any program that comes within shouting distance of what they envision. Some schools will take this very seriously; others will not. One guidance counselor told me that her district’s remediation plan was to have the counselors schedule one-on-one sessions, review the standard and make a new determination at the end of the meeting. Although she seemed normal, the absurdity of this plan was completely lost on her.
If you install a real standard in a system that has never had one before, you must expect an increase in the number of people who do not graduate. Going back to our example of statewide math assessment, one can see that 62 percent of students are not going to meet any standard similar to what the state tests for. Let’s suppose that of that 62 percent, three-quarters can be remediated to meet the standard. That still leaves 16 percent of Maine students failing to graduate. This is an intolerable situation that local politics will quash. Simply paying for the staff necessary for a fifth year of high school will kill most serious attempts to meet standards.
Because there will be no increased funding for a fifth year of secondary education or significant remedial instruction, educators will make as many exceptions and loopholes in the law as they can. They will find a number of ways to blur expectations and maintain their graduation and promotion rates. The “failed to meet standards” diploma or “guidance counselor as remediator” are two of them. More will come about as time goes on.
Data such as test and local assessment results will be fudged. It will not be a conscious decision, but local educators will have to always move along a path of least resistance when faced with the impossible task of getting everyone to meet a standard that only a slim majority can effectively fulfill.
Graduation rates will remain stable, and the percentage of students meeting the state’s standards will not get any better.
If we really want public education to make this leap, we are going to have to sacrifice for it. In the end, people always get what they pay for. I’m betting that taxes trump education on this one.
Alan Haley writes about economics and Maine life from his home in Skowhegan. He can be contacted at: [email protected]