May 11, 2013

MAINE COMPASS: Cookie-cutter education needs more than just reform

Lynn Plourde

Everyone has a "fix" for education. Now it's my turn.

My thoughts are based on my 20 years working as a speech-language therapist in Maine public schools, plus an additional 15 years working as a "teaching author." Each year, I visit 50-75 schools in Maine and other states to teach students how to write.

If we want our kids to be better educated, we need to do the following:

* Stop testing them to death. Testing takes up weeks of the school year. Teachers spend even more time "teaching to the test." Testing used to cover a wide-range of subject matters, but now we mostly test two subjects, reading and mathematics.

Teachers say they can't spend time teaching science, social studies, writing, etc. because they have to focus on the two tested subjects. If we test less, our students will do better because teachers then can focus on teaching a broader-range of subjects rather than testing for the top two.

I'm encouraged as I read about movements throughout the country where parents are opting out of high-stakes testing for their children as well as teachers who refuse to administer these never-ending tests.

* We need to tackle the true educational problem -- poverty, more specifically preschool poverty. Maine's recent school report cards match the conclusion of national education studies: students from lower socio-economic areas perform significantly lower than those from higher socio-economic areas.

Research shows the gap happens at a preschool level. Once these "poor" kids enter school, teachers do a good job of not letting the gap widen (even though the poor students continue to have many disadvantages), but the preschool gap is still there. We need to invest in quality preschool education, both for these kids and their parents. The adults need to learn how to be their children's "first teachers" by reading to them, telling them stories, talking about new words as they grocery shop, etc.

Kindergarten teachers now get kids who enter their classrooms already knowing how to read as well as some who don't even know how to hold a book to turn the pages to look at the pictures.

We blame teachers because these kids are not at the same level by the end of kindergarten. The gap happened before kindergarten; we need to work to close it before kindergarten.

* We need to teach kids at developmentally appropriate levels. As a speech-language therapist, I know oral language -- listening and speaking -- is the foundation of all learning. Kids can't be good readers, writers, math-ers, science-ers until they are first good listeners and speakers.

The demand is for kids to read at a younger and younger age so the kindergarten curriculum looks like what the first-grade curriculum used to look like, and so on. With this push, something gets squeezed out and it's oral language -- how to follow directions; understanding concepts such as before, after, same and different; learning vocabulary and sequencing skills. If we keep pushing our kids to learn older skills at younger ages, they will be less educated in the end.

* We need to value and teach creativity. We work hard to turn out students who all know the same thing at the same time. That cookie-cutter education might have worked well when we were educating factory workers, but we aren't anymore. We're teaching future entrepreneurs and innovators who will do things in new ways that we can't even imagine.

"We get educated out of creativity," says educator and researcher Ken Robinson. He says it's time to stop reforming education and to revolutionize it by teaching students to be creative and use that creativity wherever their passions and talents lie.

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