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Cutting through the Jargon, Understanding Current Educational Reforms

by Eric Varney, Sagadahoc County Teacher of the Year Science, Morse High School

When it comes to education, there is no lack of public opinion. Since virtually everyone has had some significant experience in the classroom, we have also formed our own opinions on education. These opinions are built from our own unique vantage point and often vary widely. However, agreement can be found on one front; there is no lack of jargon in education. Chances are, unless you are a teacher, support staff, or administrator, you find the jargon unnecessary and confusing. As we sit on the precipice of significant educational reform, it is important for the public to know what Maine educators are talking about: What is Proficiency Based Learning? How does Standards Based Reporting work? What is the controversy surrounding the Common Core? What is RTI and what do all of those other acronyms stand for? What is involved in the new teacher effectiveness legislation?

So parents, business community, and taxpayers--this one is for you. Please take a few moments and explore a "Reader’s Digest" version of educational reform efforts that are underway in our schools and in the news.

  1. Standards: Standards refer to what teachers and schools want students to know and/or do in each unit. Standards are not new to Maine; the Maine Learning Results are standards that have been in place for several years. What are new, and controversial, are the national standards that have been adopted by many states. These standards (The Common Core State Standards) are as close to a national curriculum in English/Language Arts and Mathematics as America has ever had. Similarly, the Next Generation Science Standards are proposed national standards for physical and life sciences and should soon eclipse the Maine Learning Results. Other subject areas, such as Social Studies, Health, Physical Education, and the Arts continue to follow the Maine Learning Results. Education decisions fall under state jurisdiction, yet many instruction and curriculum decisions are made at the district level.
  2. Proficiency Based Learning (PBL) / Standards Based Reporting: These two terms really mean the same thing. There is a national move to clearly identify standards in which student performance will be judged. Lessons will build up to assessments (exam, paper, lab report, etc) that demonstrate a level of proficiency in that standard. When a student has demonstrated that they are proficient in that skill or knowledge, it will be noted on their transcript and report card. Middle and High School report cards will look more similar to elementary school report cards, where teachers report on individual skills or knowledge, rather than an overall grade based on averages of all of the work done in that class. The purpose of this educational model is to improve communication between schools and families concerning the abilities and challenges of each student. Students will be expected to become proficient in all graduation standards before receiving a diploma.
  3. Response to Intervention (RTI): In a proficiency based learning environment, all students must demonstrate proficiency in all standards. No longer can students fail an exam, do well on the next exam, and bring their grade up to passing. So what do we do when students (inevitably) do not demonstrate proficiency in a standard? This is where a school will use its established Response to Intervention (RTI) system. Faculty members will identify a strategy that could potentially be effective in allowing the student to demonstrate proficiency, and try the strategy. If this does not work, a more invasive strategy is deployed. Interventions range from allowing more time for students to complete their work to referring students for special services. Many schools schedule time for RTI work during the school day.
  4. Teacher Effectiveness: The state of Maine legislature signed "An Act to Ensure Effective Teachers and School Leaders" into law in 2012. This law requires school districts to create a teacher effectiveness scale that includes student test scores, among other parameters, into each teacher's rating. This is largely controversial due to the volatility of student scores based on factors outside of teachers' classrooms. Districts are currently forming a committee to develop the model of teacher effectiveness rating for their district.

In my twelve years in education, I have never seen so much change occurring at one time. This is exciting, consuming, stressful, and revolutionary work that is underway in Maine schools. I urge community members, especially parents, to learn more about these reforms and ask critical questions as Maine schools work through these reform efforts. We all agree that Maine schools should be constantly reaching for excellence; we need to know whether we are reaching in the right direction.

Eric Varney teaches 9-12 grade students at Morse High School in Bath. He has held this position since 2004. Prior to that he spent a year at the Catalina Island Marine Institute in California where he started his teaching career. Eric is a graduate of Dickinson College with a Bachelor’s of Science in Environmental Science. He has a Master’s of Science in Ecological Teaching and Learning from Lesley University and is currently enrolled in Education Leadership classes at USM pursuing a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study. Eric holds a USCG Captain’s license and a Maine commercial fishing license.

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