The performance of Maine students on the Smarter Balanced test administered in all schools last spring was mediocre at best in relation to the twelve other states that have released scores at this point. Bangor Daily news reporter Matthew Stone rightly wonders if Mainers should be concerned about this result. I think we should be very concerned. Education in K – 12 schools in this state by and large does not reach the level of rigor it should. The possible exceptions occur in schools in wealthy districts or in little pockets of schools scattered throughout the state that for a variety of reasons rise above the rest. Why this lack of rigor?
Professional development is one explanation. Professional development in this state rarely treats teachers as intellectuals and innovators. Instead the focus is on teachers being trained to implement mandates passed down to them by others considered more knowledgeable than themselves. At the moment there is hardly a public school where professional development work is not centered on the laborious transition to proficiency-based education and data collection. If you take time to talk to a teacher, very few will say they are excited by the professional development opportunities provided them or even supportive of PBE and the extraordinary emphasis on data collection.
Teachers need to feel enthusiastic, alive intellectually, and encouraged to innovate if they are to pass on to their students these important traits associated with high achievement. Professional development should be centered on the latest brain research, on what can be learned from successful international models of education, on specific learning strategies that show impressive results, on engaging teachers in the search for solutions to the low aspirations of so many of our students.
Our state (and much of the nation) is barking up the wrong trees when it comes to finding solutions to educational mediocracy. Instead of inspiring teachers, we are driving them to retire early and consider other careers. Those who remain are often so exhausted by the implementation of mandates that they have little energy left to create the exciting learning opportunities for their students that stand a chance of redirecting our many Maine students with aspirational malaise. We need to take better care of the professionals who have chosen lives of service to children. This is the path to greater student achievement in Maine.