Educational reform fatigue

Yet another educational reform effort got underway at the Blaine House in Augusta on Monday. The first meeting of a 15-member “Blue Ribbon Commission” is tasked with looking for ways to “reform education funding and improve student performance in Maine.”

De facto Education Commissioner Bill Beardsley appointed members earlier this month, including legislators from both parties, teachers, administrators, college and tech school officials, and a charter school representative.

For parents, teachers and others on the front lines in education, however, the response to the creation of yet another reform entity has been far from overwhelming.

Over the past two decades or so, major reforms tinkering with the educational system in Maine have come along with predictable regularity.

In 1997, the state adopted Maine Learning Results, which guided policy and curriculum for nearly a decade. Major changes were undertaken during that time. Next, the state jumped through hoops to comply with testing and core course work requirements imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act that came online in 2002.

In 2008, then-Governor John Baldacci imposed a disruptive state-wide school district consolidation plan that diverted time, energy and funds away from classrooms.

Three years later, in 2011, Maine switched its approach again, this time to embrace a voluntary set of national standards known as “Common Core” that proved wildly unpopular with parents, teachers and lawmakers in both parties. In 2013, that was dropped in favor of the current approach, known as “proficiency-based” learning.

Throughout that period, Maine officials sought waivers from several provisions of NCLB, leaving school officials all across the state wondering what standards actually would be in force.

Locally, and in other Maine communities, the proficiency-based approach now is being questioned. Some parents are concerned that the metrics for determining success, replacing conventional letter grades, may make it more difficult for high school students to gain college and university admission.

Over these 20 years, each major shift in educational approach has introduced new curriculum demands and new methods of testing and assessment. With each change, teachers and administrators have found themselves back to square one concerning how best to do their jobs. Training staff and incorporating new materials and methods takes time, but no reduction in classroom effort is acceptable. Any process takes one or two years for all the changes to filter up or down to all grade levels. Meanwhile, new calls for “reform” often are often made before the last change has been given sufficient time to take effect, or for its effectiveness to be measured appropriately.

With repeated paradigm changes, rapidly evolving technology, increasing demands on schools to address social services needs and budget pressures, many communities are finding it more and more difficult to retain qualified teachers and administrators. It’s not the teaching demands that are burning these people out, but the constant flow down the proverbial regulatory hill.

Students nearing graduation in Maine have had their progress tracked and been taught under no less than four different educational rubrics. To avoid further educational inconsistency, the new Blue Ribbon Commission may want to gauge the effects of previous reforms before once again upending education in Maine.

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