Economic development starts in schools

With Maine’s oceanfront and lakeshores filled to bursting with tourists, one might think our state looks pretty prosperous. There is no doubt that tourism plays a major role in our economy, including providing jobs galore. But seasonal jobs, welcome though they may be, are not the key to Maine’s future.

Many, if not most, of those jobs are low-wage and without benefits. Many are filled by workers from other countries, and Maine employers will tell you they are mighty glad to have them. Where once our teen-agers and college students flocked to the summer job market, now employers say it is hard to find locals who want to work.

With the vagaries of U.S. immigration and visa policies, it is a scramble each spring to learn whether the supply of foreign workers will be available or not. “Help Wanted” signs persist in every Maine town with a summer economy.

What, then, is the direction in which our future lies? The Maine work ethic, once a source of pride for our state, is no longer what it was. Economic development schemes have come out of Augusta for decades, many of which propose making Maine’s youth the best educated workforce in America. Sounds like a good plan, but then what happened?

For decades, the Maine education community has been fighting its way toward standards of education for Maine public schools that would apply to all learners. They may have had different labels (Common Core, Learning Results, Proficiency-based Standards) but they all had the same intent. Kids all over Maine should have equal access to education that prepares them for success in the current workforce. Where you live should not define what you learn.

Now, under the banner of “local control,” those efforts have come to an abrupt halt. Proficiency-based learning has become an option, not a requirement.

It is true that teachers and school administrators have felt whipsawed by changing philosophies of education. Each time the legislature passed a new school policy, educators made a good faith effort to comply. Too often, before the ink was dry on a new proposal, it was being changed and changed again. Educators who invested a great deal of thought and effort in compliance had the rug pulled out from under them.

Yet the overall goal of universal standards was an important one. Two of the champions of proficiency-based learning were our own local legislators, Senator Brian Langley and Representative Brian Hubbell. Both served years on the Education Committee and knew the issue well. Both fought hard to retain proficiency-based learning standards. Both witnessed the devastating reversal of the policy this summer.

A bill was introduced and passed by the legislature and signed into law by the governor. Gone is the requirement that students must have mastered a clear curriculum to obtain a high school diploma. Sen. Langley puts the message in practical terms, based on his experience as a culinary arts teacher and restaurant owner. He has seen too many kids with a high school diploma lack adequate communication skills, unable to perform basic math and unable to progress from entry-level jobs.

Rep. Hubbell, having thought deeply about education in Maine during his time on that policy committee, came to the same conclusion. Calling the challenged standards “meaningful and ambitious,” he argued that the course reversal will result in “sharply lowered expectations for equity in learning.”

The learning standards did not impose a curriculum on Maine schools. It was left to the local schools to determine how best to meet the standards. Now, once again, students will be required to sit through the presentation of material, but there is no requirement that they must master it.

The Maine School Management Association, Maine School Superintendents Association and the Maine School Board Association all lined up in support of the standards, as did the Maine Teacher of the Year and the statewide County Teachers of the Year.

On the other hand, the Maine Heritage Policy Center urged Mainers to “come out and celebrate a bipartisan success to restore local control of Maine schools.” There will be a “happy hour!” Come and be joyful that your son or daughter will only have to sit in class for the requisite number of years, not actually master the subject matter, in order to get a high school diploma.

Then, when that son or daughter is pronounced unemployable by the businesses that provide good jobs in Maine, fear not. There will always be summer work changing beds or cleaning restaurant floors.

Repealing the requirement for proficiency-based standards means that, far from becoming a model of education, the state of Maine will be a place to avoid when it comes to starting or relocating a business. The tip of the cap to “local control” means Maine will continue to fall further and further behind.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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