Setting high standards, and sticking to them

Author icon: Head shot of Commissioner Stephen BowenYou could feel some excitement in the air on Friday in the not-always-exciting hearing room of the Maine Legislature’s Education Committee.

That’s when a slate of bills addressing what we expect our students to be able to do once they graduate came up for hearings before the committee.

It was heartening to hear from lawmakers of both parties who are on the same page when it comes to setting rigorous expectations for our students and seeing to it that they meet those expectations before they walk out the door, diploma in hand.

It was reassuring to know that they’re on the same page with the countless administrators, teachers, parents and citizens I’ve encountered in my travels as Commissioner who also want rigorous standards, along with assurances that their schools and the Department of Education will stay true to them.

We set those rigorous standards earlier this spring when the Legislature passed and Gov. LePage signed into law the Common Core state standards.

A pair of bills on the docket Friday — L.D. 1422 from Sen. Brian Langley and L.D. 949 from Sen. Justin Alfond — would work toward making sure we hold our students to them.

Both bills would establish a so-called standards-based diploma for Maine schools. In a standards-based system, students would only advance to the next level once they’ve met the standard, or demonstrated they’re proficient in a particular skill. Such a system would also allow students to determine how they’ll learn what they need to learn, and advance at their own pace.

In theory, we’ve been aspiring to a standards-based diploma since 1997, when the Maine Learning Results became law. But we haven’t fully realized that vision. One reason is we’ve maintained an emphasis on completing school within a designated period of time.

Take high school, for example. Rather than stressing proficiency in the required content areas, we’ve continued to require that students enroll in four years of high school English, two years of math, two years of science and two years of social studies.

A standards-based diploma recognizes that some students need less time to meet the requirements than others, and some students need more than the standard four years of high school. The system makes sure that students aren’t considered proficient in English simply because they’ve sat through four years of high school English classes.

Sen. Langley’s bill would also put in statute the need for a strategic plan to guide Maine education in the coming years. While we’re not ready to put the planning process in statute, you can be sure that strategic plan will occupy much of my attention in the coming months.

And you can be sure that the planning process will involve figuring out how we get every Maine student to meet the requirements of a standards-based diploma.

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