State of Maine: Moving the goalposts for educators

At this point in the legislative session there are 144 bills that have been referred to the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. A small number of those bills are in the “cultural” terrain of the committee, but the large majority of them are about education. What could be so wrong? Do we really need 144 changes to Maine education policy?

Where do these bills come from? Are they constituent requests, Education Department ideas or the inventions of the sponsors? Are they carefully thought out changes on which stakeholders — parents, teachers, school administrators — agree? Or are they reactions to someone with a bee in his bonnet about a school issue?

The list of titles gives one a sense of what someone thinks should be legislated. School funding and teacher salaries are no surprise. But the number of bills meant to regulate various aspects of food service in schools? A surprise.

School breakfast, school lunch, after-school food and other “hunger relief” proposals, the purchase of local produce and reducing food waste are all subjects for possible legislation. There is a proposal for a prohibition on “food shaming” (refusing a meal to a student because he cannot pay), or identifying a student who owes money for food in a public way (a wristband or hand stamp). Really? We do that?

There are bills about school discipline, violence in schools and mental health education. There is a bill to establish computer science courses for classes from kindergarten to 12th grade. Kindergarten? Absolutely. If our kids are not well-versed in 21st century technology, they are not going to succeed in the 21st century economy.

There are narrowly focused bills that would require education about the Holocaust, instruction in cursive handwriting for grades 3-5 and the use of sunscreen without a note from a parent or guardian or a note or prescription from a physician. Who knew that taking sunscreen to school required these types of authorization?

Someone has identified each and every one of these as a legitimate subject for legislation. Others might call it micromanaging our public schools. Education policy arouses considerable passion in the electorate, but it is also a policy area behind which lies a substantial body of knowledge, knowledge of which the average parent is blissfully unaware.

A longstanding debate in Maine is over how we define academic expectations. Over at least two decades various educational groups worked to define “learning results,” the academic outcomes that would be expected of our students.

There was lengthy debate about “seat time” versus mastering subject matter. This evolved into “proficiency-based education” that defined eight areas of learning in which students must be able to demonstrate sufficient “mastery” to earn a “proficiency-based diploma.”

One cannot overestimate the numbers of educators and school administrators or the amount of time devoted to considering these educational theories, devising ways to implement them and putting them into effect in the classroom. It has been a massive undertaking, and one that not every parent or teacher supported.

Nevertheless, teachers worked in good faith to do as the Legislature directed. Compounding the difficulty of the endeavor was the Legislature’s penchant for moving the goal post. A new Legislature is elected every two years and a governor every four years. Each of them wants to put their mark on education policy.

It must be extremely frustrating for the education community to follow the ups and downs of changes in educational policy. Plans and theories evolved so regularly that there was not time to fully implement one before another took its place. Most teachers still love to teach, but you might not want to be sitting around a barbecue with them in the summer while they discuss their feelings about legislative intervention in their profession.

Once hailed as a major advance for Maine, proficiency-based learning was soon under siege by parents who doubted its validity and could not comprehend an evaluation system that indicated mastery of a subject rather than the standard letter grades they had once received. How could kids receiving this kind of learning evaluation fill out a college application?

On the other hand, how will parents know if their kids are well-prepared for college if an “A” in one school indicates a whole different level of achievement than an “A” in another? The idea of standardizing learning achievement was what proficiency-based learning attempted to address.

Last year the Legislature considered repealing proficiency-based standards altogether, but in the end, in the name of “local control,” opted to make the approach voluntary. This was a big step back from the notion that the same standards must apply to all schools in order to provide statewide equity in education.

With over 100 bills making their way through the legislative process, it is clear that the Legislature is not done revising Maine’s educational system. For better or worse? Only time will tell.

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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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