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Aurora Institute

Education Evolving

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Pilots and Innovation Zones, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education


I had the opportunity to re-read Maine’s strategic plan Education Evolving, which was developed in 2012. The opening essay is so powerful and so beautifully written I just need to share it with the CompetencyWorks readers. I think it will definitely help all of you in districts and states that are developing communication strategies to explain why competency-based education is needed. When I read the core priorities at the end, I once again realized how visionary Maine’s Department of Education was at that time. 

The Case for Change

The Challenges We Face and a Way Forward

For generations, the educators in Maine’s public school system have worked tirelessly to meet the educational needs of the students in their care, and their unwavering effort has been evident. Maine’s schools routinely score highly in national rankings of educational outcomes and Maine people have a long history of strong support for their local schools.

However, a new age is upon us. Where our schools once needed to prepare young people for work in a predominantly natural resource-based economy of forestry, farming and fishing, they must now prepare students for a global economy in which many of the jobs of Maine’s past have become automated or moved offshore. Maine’s young people need an entirely new set of skills to succeed in an information-age economy where ideas and innovation move at the speed of light. These new skills are not just related to advances in technology, they are a product of the way society and business work and think: flatter organizations that require more independent thinking and problem-solving; collaboration with people and teams across the aisle and in offices around the globe; and more advanced critical thinking, even in jobs that once were considered manual labor and did not even require a high school degree.

This new age poses a series of challenges that will require us to not simply reform our schools, but to re-imagine them; to build on the successes of the past while creating a model of schooling for this new age.

Challenge 1: Our schools are struggling to accomplish what they need to accomplish

The first challenge we confront is that when one measures the success of our schools using the traditional indicators— test scores, graduation rates, and so forth—Maine may well exceed the national averages, but forward progress is slow. Test scores are essentially flat, and graduation rates, while up slightly, are gaining too slowly.

The most recent set of results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics at the United States Department of Education, show that the percentage of fourth graders in Maine scoring proficient or better in reading is lower today than it was 20 years ago. Reading proficiency levels for the state’s eighth graders have dropped as well. In math, proficiency levels are trending up, but even today, only 45 percent of Maine’s fourth graders are proficient or better in math, a rate that drops to just 39 percent by eighth grade.

Maine’s high school graduation rate has edged up slightly in recent years, but remains unacceptably low. Too many of Maine’s young people fail to complete high school, and too many who do complete high school do not have the knowledge and skills they need to move onto college and careers. The state’s higher education institutions report that a shockingly high percentage of incoming students require remedial coursework. The Maine Community College System, for instance, reports that a majority of the students it enrolls right out of high school—51 percent—require some kind of additional academic support. They simply are not prepared to do college-level work.

Employers also express concern that recent high school graduates lack many of the skills the modern workforce requires. Employers interviewed by author Tony Wagner for his book The Global Achievement Gap report that students graduating from the nation’s high schools struggle with complex and critical thinking, labor to communicate effectively and work productively in teams, and often lack the capacity to think in the kinds of creative and innovative ways the information-age economy requires.

It is important to point out that our schools are not struggling due to a lack of effort. Educators in Maine and across the nation are working harder than ever. As Wagner argues, our schools are not failing, they are simply obsolete: They were built for a bygone era, and the world of the 21st century requires something new.

Challenge 2: Recent efforts to improve schools have come up short

The second challenge facing us is that the steps we have taken to address the problems of our struggling schools have not only failed to make our schools more effective, they have largely made things worse.

In an attempt to turn our schools around, for instance, policymakers instituted high-stakes testing. Today, we grade the effectiveness of schools based on how well students do on standardized tests in two content areas: math and English language arts. We test this year’s fourth graders, compare how that group performed relative to last year’s fourth graders, then make all sorts of determinations about the effectiveness of schools and teachers based on two sets of scores from two different groups of students in two subject areas.

Our schools have responded to this new reality predictably, and logically, given the expectations: By focusing their efforts on and directing their resources to those academic subjects that are tested, often at the expense of other content areas. During tough financial times especially, schools and districts have freed up resources to invest in tested subjects by cutting programs and course offerings in other areas, such as art and industrial arts, music and foreign languages.

The result is a significant student engagement problem. A 2009 Indiana University study found that 67 percent of students report being bored in school every day. When asked why they find school boring, the vast majority of students surveyed—82 percent—report a lack of interest in the material being taught. Nearly half report that they do not see how the material is relevant to them.

These recent accountability efforts have had an adverse effect on educators as well. The nation’s teachers feel besieged. The public school structure is demanding something from them that’s been asked of no previous generation of educators: They’re expected to assure that every student in their care reaches the same high level of academic achievement at the same time, regardless of prior learning or life experiences. Their effectiveness at this daunting task is determined to a large degree by scores on standardized tests.

According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, more than 30 percent of beginning teachers leave the profession within five years, and that rate is climbing. The Commission calculates that this “teacher dropout” crisis costs the nation billions of dollars each year.

In short, recent efforts to improve schools through test-based accountability efforts have largely failed. The intense work undertaken to raise test scores in math and language arts has had little discernable impact on those test scores, and worse still, these efforts are driving educators from the profession and have resulted in a narrowing of school curricula at a time when the job creators of the 21st century are calling for more emphasis on creative and innovative thinking and skills.

Challenge 3: Our traditional approach to education is standing in the way of success

That standardized testing and the accompanying accountability provisions of laws like the No Child Left Behind Act have failed to improve our schools to any significant degree, despite the best efforts of the educators working in them, suggests that the challenge we face is more fundamental in nature.

It suggests a design problem. The basic architecture of our system of schooling was established, after all, more than a century ago, for an industrial age that has all but vanished.

In fact, one of the most significant developments impacting the design of public schools was the 1892 report of a group known as the Committee of Ten. This high-profile committee of educators, chaired by the president of Harvard University, released a report in that year that outlined the basic design of our public schools today.

The committee suggested that eight years of elementary school be followed by four years of high school. They recommended that in math, arithmetic should be taught from ages 6 to 13, pre-algebra should be addressed at about seventh grade, and algebra should begin at age 14, followed by geometry. The three-year secondary school science curriculum, they suggested, should begin with biology and earth science, move next to chemistry, and then onto physics.

All of this would seem familiar to a student of today.

The committee’s report also declared “every subject which is taught at all … should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil.” It likewise determined that each subject should be granted “equal time allotment” regardless of how much time a student needed to learn it. This was done, the committee wrote, to preserve the “dignity” of each academic subject. For the Committee of Ten, it was the subject matter to which teachers were to pay homage, not the individual learning needs of their students.

After all, this committee was trying to build a system of schools to meet a set of needs that today is outdated. In that era, it was thought that only an “insignificant percentage” of high school graduates would go on to college. As a result, the ideal school system should “be made for those children whose education is not to be pursued beyond the secondary school.”

This approach may well have served the nation’s interests a century ago, but the global economy of the 21st century, not to mention the well-being of students and future families, requires far more.

The challenge to be confronted, then, is to build a system that prepares every student for some type of post-secondary education and the high-skill careers of today and the future. To do that, we have to address the core design elements of the system we have – the age-based grade levels, the Carnegie units and seat time, the factory-style bell schedules. We have to address the basic architecture of the industrial-era model of schooling built more than a century ago.

Challenge 4: Change must be achieved within existing resources

As if transforming a century-old model of schooling were not challenging enough, it is clear that we must do so without additional financial resources. Whatever work we do to make our schools better must be done by investing the education dollars we have in new ways.

For years, the nation’s public schools enjoyed steady and significant increases in funding year after year. Over the past 40 years, inflation-adjusted spending on public education nationally has essentially tripled. Ongoing spending increases of this kind, though, are a thing of the past. The $914 million the state has budgeted for General Purpose Aid to Maine’s schools for the 2012-13 school year brings the level of state funding to approximately where it was during the 2006-07 school year. Add to that the loss of various forms of federal funding, and Maine’s schools will receive less state and federal funding in 2012-13 than they received in 2011-12.

There is little reason to think that this reality will change anytime soon. The federal government is struggling with massive spending issues, and Maine state government is confronting a shortfall for the current biennial budget that totals more than $200 million. At the local level, Maine’s towns and cities struggle with constant budget pressures as well, and will almost certainly continue for the foreseeable future.

That means waiting for the financial outlook to brighten before taking action is not an option. We – the state Department of Education and Maine’s schools and districts – must maximize the use of available resources.

A way forward through a relentless focus on our core priorities

Exciting things are happening today in schools across Maine. Teachers are using new instructional models that build educational experiences around the needs of the learner. Schools are moving away from grouping students by physical age, and are instead developing proficiency-based systems that ensure all students have met learning outcomes at individualized paces. Schools are more fully integrating technology into the classroom, are engaging the broader community in teaching and learning, are using data on student performance to improve student outcomes, and are providing their students with more educational options and approaches.

To build on the great work being done in Maine’s schools today, and to move from a century-old model of schooling to a more effective, learner-centered approach in the process, will require a steady focus on a handful of core priorities organized around meeting the individual learning needs of all students.

The plan that follows is arranged into five core priority areas that are organized from the learner out, as the accompanying graphic on page 2 illustrates.

  • Closest to the learners are the instructional practices used in the classroom. This core priority area concerns the standards and curricula, classroom practices and instructional techniques, assessment of student learning and the use of data to inform decision-making.
  • Effective instructional practices can’t be applied without effective teachers and school leaders, the second core priority area. Ensuring that every student is surrounded by great educators means focusing on the need to provide top-quality preparation and ongoing support to the state’s teachers and leaders.
  • Building a system of schooling that meets the needs of all students will require building an educational system with unprecedented flexibility and multiple avenues for student success. Creating multiple pathways for student achievement must be a central focus of our efforts.
  • For learners to be successful, a comprehensive network of school and community supports is critical. We must ensure that learners have access to the services they need to be successful and that families and the broader community outside the school walls are engaged as partners in teaching and learning.
  • Every effort must also be made to carefully align the entire educational system so that learners can move seamlessly from one educational opportunity to the next. Technology must be integrated seamlessly and system-wide, and we must put a new accountability structure into place.

In the plan that follows, each of these core priority areas is further divided into subcategories, with specific goals, objectives and action steps developed for each. The result is a broad set of specific, measureable steps that will move Maine to a new model of schooling. Such a move won’t take place through the imposition of heavy-handed mandates or one-size-fits-all approaches from Augusta, but by building on the innovative work being done in schools across Maine already and by employing strategies to increase collaboration and sharing of best practices.

Indeed, we are fortunate in Maine to have a number of schools and districts that have taken promising steps toward making the five core priority areas central to all that they do. We are beginning to see the profound, positive impact this laser-like focus on core priorities can have on individual students. Students in these early-adopting schools and districts are taking an active role in directing their own education.

Their education is taking place in classrooms intentionally designed to foster student engagement and empowerment. Their learning is facilitated by teachers trained in practices that make expectations transparent. The learning opportunities they are provided meet them where they are and support, encourage, and challenge them.

Making learning experiences like this available to every student in Maine should be our goal. In an era of fiscal challenges, the only way to make that goal a reality is to focus, at both the state and local levels, on those core practices that have the greatest impact on student success.

That is the intent of the plan that follows.

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