STATE HOUSE

January 18, 2012

Proposal urges more flexibility in education

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- The Department of Education unveiled a new strategic plan Tuesday for moving Maine's public schools toward a system that values learning flexibility and proficiency above tests and the amount of time spent in school.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, presenting the 35-page report at a news conference at Capital Area Technical Center, said that test scores, graduation rates and post-secondary education enrollment rates show that Maine's schools are falling short.

To ensure student success, schools will need to personalize education, Bowen said.

The plan he presented aims to promote rigorous standards while allowing flexibility in how students learn. Digital learning and independent study are examples of ways students can do that, the report says.

"As good and as hardworking as all our educators and school leaders are, we've got to do more," Bowen said. He said the schools need to reach every single student and make sure that every one who graduates from a Maine high school is "ready for college, careers and civic life."

"Not some students, not even most students, but all students, every single child."

Bowen said that was the charge that Gov. Paul LePage gave him when appointing him to the commissioner's post last year.

A strategic plan for the department was requested by other policymakers, including Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, chairman of the Education and Cultural Affairs committee, in a bill held over from last session.

Department of Education officials will present the plan to the committee today.

Langley's bill and another sponsored by Sen. Justin Alfond, which passed as a legislative resolve last year, both seek to put Maine on a path towards a proficiency-based diploma.

According to the plan, the Department of Education will work with the Legislature this session on statutory language requiring schools to award proficiency-based diplomas by a certain date.

Students would graduate only when they can demonstrate mastery of all the standards defined in the Maine Learning Results, adopted in 1997, and the national Common Core curriculum that Maine recently adopted for math and language arts.

That's in contrast to the current system, which awards credits based on seat time.

Some high schools have rigorous standards now, but not all of them, Bowen said.

The proficiency-based diploma is the one real mandate in the strategic plan, he said, but several other changes follow from that: new assessment systems, instructional practices, teacher development programs, and multiple "pathways" that allow students to demonstrate what they've learned.

One hitch is the lack of funding for any major initiatives.

"We don't anticipate more money coming from the feds," Bowen said. "We certainly don't anticipate more money anytime soon at the state level. Property tax payers are maxed out. So it's a matter of making better use of the resources that we've got."

Bowen said his department will do everything it can to foster collaboration among districts, especially to share the experiences and best practices of districts that are already implementing the standard-based model espoused in the plan.

More than two dozen school districts and high schools in Maine are working on some form of standards-based education, including Regional School Unit 2 in Hallowell, RSU 18 in Oakland and RSU 15 in Gray and New Gloucester.

Students from Oakland, Auburn, Sullivan and Augusta attended Tuesday's news event to voice support for initiatives that are promoted in the strategic plan.

They talked about using technology, creating their own learning plans and choosing nontraditional educational experiences such as job shadowing, technical education and college classes at the high school level.

The strategic plan's framework starts with students and builds out from there, with priority areas for teachers and school leaders, school structures, community supports and state support.

The document was described by Bowen as a working plan. In the coming months, the department will gather feedback on it and create working plans to implement the four goals in each priority area, he said.

Maine Education Association President Chris Galgay said he met with Bowen about the plan on Friday, but said the association is still analyzing the plan.

"He's taken on quite a challenge, but we're always interested in anything that will help improve public education in the state," Galgay said.

Galgay said he likes the emphasis on high standards and ensuring that teachers have the skills to be effective.

But some of the talk about school choice concerns Galgay because it's more difficult for schools to plan when they don't know how many students they'll have from year to year, he said.

Susan McMillan -- 621-5645

smcmillan@mainetoday.com

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