Article by Senator Justin Alfond

October 31 2010
0e0ca7dd1f21f28d-ALFONDSenator Justin Alfond at work in the Maine State Senate,

This election season has elicited many ideas around improving Maine’s educational system from pre-kindergarten through college . As Senate chair of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, it gives me faith that so many people care about our educational system. I applaud the interest and input by parents, teachers, administrators, legislators, candidates for governor, and advocates.
Maine’s educational system has a strong foundation. We fund K-12 education at an impressive level; we have a culture of producing solid results (better than the national average in most categories), and we have incredible teachers and administrators in our schools. That being said, Maine’s education system is at a crossroads.

We have had over three tough years of K-12 reorganization; too many five-year-olds are entering kindergarten unprepared to learn; over 3,000 students leave our K-12 schools each year; too many of our high school graduates need to take remedial coursework at higher education; and our higher education is consistently underfunded. The landscape if full of pros and cons. Here is where I would start to tackle these issues:

First, we must take stock of what we are doing in education today. Next, we must create a plan that the public, teachers, administrators, and parents can support. This plan would be Maine’s long-term vision (five, ten, and twenty years) of what we want our pre-kindergarten through college education system to look like. Finally, we must look at policy goals to get us there.

As you read this article, a report that I initiated is documenting every Department of Education program. The report will be a written and visual document illustrating all our programs, their purposes, who they serve, their costs, who is in charge, and their outcomes. This landscaping will not only set the stage for planning where our educational system needs to go, but it will also assist the next Education Committee, the next commissioner of education, the next governor, and the public.

My plan starts by developing a pre-kindergarten through higher education system based on inclusion. Every level of our system would adopt the culture that no matter where you live in Maine, no matter what your situation (poverty, English as learning language, big/small schools, special education needs), Maine’s educational system will provide you with an excellent education. In this new system of inclusion, there would be no excuses for not achieving our state goal of providing an excellent education to every student in Maine. With that as our baseline, I would then engage stakeholders groups (educators, administrators, businesses, policy makers, expert on systems change, and advocates) to spend one year to work on an education system that produces the results to meet today’s 21st-century needs.

Here are some of the high-leverage reforms that can ensure all Maine kids, no matter where they live, are prepared for the 21st century. I would ask the stakeholders group to consider the following:

• Create common standards for all pre-kindergarten students and implement a statewide program for four-year-olds.
• Work with our teachers to establish the highest-quality curriculum and instruction standards for every grade.
• Implement existing state law promoting multiple pathways, so every child can learn the standards in a way that fits their needs and individual learning styles.
• Continue the work that most districts have started, creating robust Response to Intervention systems, so that no child fails or falls through the cracks.
• Create a positive accountability system for teachers and administrators that takes a variety of qualitative and quantitative measures into account.
• Make college more affordable and accessible to Mainers of all ages.

These are six examples of reforms we can make. Most of our school systems are losing their relevance because we are still teaching the way we did 100 years ago. It’s time that our schools evolve by using evidence-based policies that other states or countries use. It’s time that we had a plan and set policy priorities that we stick to for a period of time. It’s time that we, the adults of Maine, get out of the way and empower every student to be the best they can possibly be.