Flexibility, accountability: A better way to chart Maine students’ learning

[OpEd in Bangor Daily News, Feb. 23, 2016]

Maine’s future depends on educating students who can think for themselves, write and speak clearly, and work together to solve complex problems. Accomplishing this requires reaching students who learn in different ways and at different paces and for whom the pathways of lifelong learning will be increasingly complex.

We can no longer treat students like widgets moving through an assembly line as though they simply are amalgams of common academic content. Today’s students demand and deserve more customization.

To support a more open rangeland for education, we need better mapping of student achievement and clearly understood benchmarks — not just for schools but also for students, parents and our communities.

This legislative session, the Education Committee will propose broader credentials and a more meaningful transcript for students along with complementary accountability measures for schools, which will strengthen public assurance that our schools are successfully educating students for the challenges of modern careers and postsecondary education.

Under this model, student transcripts will show employers and college admission offices the subjects students have mastered. Schools will be required to give all students the opportunity via different pathways to become proficient in all subject areas described in state standards, not just the ones required for graduation.

On these transcripts schools also will certify each student’s college and career readiness by objective measures which, beyond subject proficiency, may also include admissions exams, national technical certifications or real work experience. This stronger emphasis on more comprehensive transcripts over diplomas is subtle but powerful.

More detailed credentials will allow students to distinguish themselves through their individual achievements. Transcripts benchmarked against learning results will allow students, parents, colleges and employers to understand with more certainty each student’s knowledge, skills and preparation for postsecondary education and careers.

Requiring schools transparently to report on these credentials will allow Maine to ensure equity of opportunity. Without a big-picture perspective of what is going on in education, we can’t know what’s working and where we need to improve.

The new federal Every Student Succeeds Act that recently replaced No Child Left Behind Act places the responsibility on individual states to assure schools are equitably providing rich educational opportunities. Under this model, Maine is poised to do just that.

With support from four governors and a dozen legislatures, Maine has led the nation in implementing learning standards, which encompass a core of knowledge and skills essential to prepare our students for college, citizenship and fulfilling careers.

As ambitious goals, these standards clearly elevate aspirations for all students. Maine has never settled for either substandard education or substandard expectations, and we don’t intend to start now.

These standards permit local flexibility to reflect the variety of Maine communities and allow students the freedom of personalized learning to meet the full breadth of individual goals and needs.

These standards also assure that students from across the state have common learning expectations and opportunities, irrespective of the relative wealth of their communities.

We remain committed to Maine’s longtime development of clearer and more rigorous goals met by individualized learning paths. We also are gratified that, following Maine’s lead, four other New England states also have enacted similar standards-based education models.

In recent years, Maine schools have made significant progress in this effort. However, over these same years, well-intended but onerous federal initiatives such as No Child Left Behind have constrained schools and narrowed public focus on easily quantifiable measures of student achievement.

As a result, schools have found themselves, at the expense of personalization, accountable only to narrowing assessments, and much earnest work to improve learning in schools has been muddied by confusion about the real task at hand of improving student learning.

We believe we have the means to recommit to the state’s original vision of equitable opportunity, creative teaching and customized learning.

These measures will require schools to work with students of all abilities to ensure they have the information they need to make choices for their future, choices which will be based on a broader range of clearly understood measures of their capacity and abilities.

On the Legislature’s Education Committee, we have heard from educators across the state who are deeply committed to the emerging success of individualized learning and to clear methods of holding ourselves and our educational system accountable for the success of all students.

We believe this is the best way to empower Maine students with the top-level communications, complex reasoning and collaborative problem-solving skills they will need for prosperous and fulfilling futures.

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