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Many Teachers Find Faults in Maine Learning Results

Ohanian Comment: Maine has embarked on an ambitious task. While parts may seem meritorious, I say it's standards-based, and I say to hell with it. When will someone have the nerve to stand up for a kid-based plan, a plan that admits--and rejoices--that kids are different?

Usually it's the kids who experience butterflies on the first day of school. But this year many veteran high school teachers and administrators share their students' feelings of dread and panic.

That's because every public high school in Maine this year must implement new graduation standards for incoming freshmen, even though educators in most districts are still struggling to develop those standards - called Maine Learning Results - by the end of the school year, the state deadline.

Some teachers complain that the state is forcing schools to adopt an idealistic plan that ignores classroom realities, stifles teachers' creativity and may even lead to lower standards. In Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough, more than 260 teachers and administrators signed a petition to Gov. John Baldacci and the Legislature that calls on the state to postpone the implementation of the new standards. Wiscasset teachers also circulated a petition that was highly critical of the plan.

The standards-based approach will force teachers to create "cookie cutter" class plans that ignore the varying abilities and interests of students, said Richard Lewis, a chemistry teacher at Scarborough High School who was a leader in the petition effort. Also, it will crimp the autonomy of innovative teachers to the point that some will leave the profession, he said.

"All folks," he said, "are not created equal - educators and students."

But proponents say the new standards will force schools to address the needs of struggling students rather than ignore them and pass them up to the next grade. They say many teachers now lavish attention on college-bound students, but write off the students at the bottom of the bell curve.

"There's a little anxiety across the state as these kids come to school," said South Portland principal Jean Crocker. "But there's also a lot of excitement about making sure all kids have the opportunity to learn wonderful things and develop great skills, not just some kids."

Both sides agree that this year represents a historic shift in the way high schools measure student performance. Many parents, though, are now unaware of the change. The new approach will face its biggest test - in terms of public support - in four years, when some parents will learn that sons and daughters will be denied a diploma, even though they passed every required course.

The Learning Results approach is part of an ambitious national movement to boost student performance by setting uniform standards. The movement is encoded in federal law in the form of the No Child Left Behind Act.

But while other states, such as Massachusetts and New York, have developed high-stakes tests that students must pass to graduate, Maine's approach calls for local school districts to devise a series of tests based on state benchmarks.

More than 650 educators from 125 school districts attended two-day "design institutes" this summer, held by the state Department of Education, to learn how to craft ways to assess students that will give them numerous opportunities during their high school career to show they meet the standards.

Some say the goal of Learning Results is impossibly ambitious. School districts must somehow create their own assessment plans that are unique to each high school, meet the rigors of numerous state benchmarks but also are comparable to the plans developed by other districts. The whole effort is clouded in education jargon that has made it difficult to explain to teachers. The state's testing protocols have changed so often that teachers are frustrated, said Susan Poppish, principal at Wiscasset High School.

Also, there are unanswered questions about where teachers are going to find the time to put together assessment plans, and how are they going to give at-risk students extra help if there is no additional funding.

"Across the state you have good people who want to do the work being frustrated because the task right now seems a bit insurmountable," Poppish said. "We have to have clarity. I can't lead people into something if I'm not sure what it really is."

The proposed standards are lower than those already being met by college-bound students and will only affect a minority of students, said David Ely, a history teacher at Cape Elizabeth High School and a leader of the petition drive.

Yet 100 percent of the staff development time over the last two years has been devoted to Learning Results, he said, while the needs of the majority of students are being pushed aside. He said the new standards will lead to the creation of an expensive, bureaucratic system that will drain financial and human resources from Maine schools.

Also, the initiative may actually lower overall standards, he said. To reduce the the risk to their own careers that would occur if students fail, teachers will now focus on getting all students to meet minimum standards rather than pushing some of them far beyond those standards.

Portland Superintendent Mary Jo O'Connor said educators have a moral imperative to ensure that every child has a shot at being successful.

She said she is outraged that some students are allowed to pass through Portland's school system with only minimal reading and math skills. Schools must fundamentally change the way they operate, and many teachers are threatened by change, she said.

The state's business community is demanding that schools change because a better educated work force is necessary for the state's economy to thrive in the competitive world market, said Robert Cobb, dean of the University of Maine's College of Education and Human Development.

The current system, which is artificially designed to sort out the best students from the weak ones, requires that a certain percentage of students feel as though they are failures, he said.

"With performance standards, the expectation is that every child will succeed," he said. "That's a different expectation of faculty, and it requires a major shift in thinking."

Learning Results: A Poll
This year's freshman class will be the first required to meet the state's learning results in order to graduate from high school. Learning results define the level of knowledge that a student must master in each core content area. Proponents say it prepares students better for the knowledge economy. But many educators believe the standards will dumb down classes. Will learning results improve education in Maine?

No: 70.00%

Yes: 30.00%

Total Votes: 130

This poll is not a scientific survey of reader opinion. The results are a snapshot of what readers are thinking.

— Tom Bell
Many teachers find faults in Learning Results
Portland Press Herald


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