The state’s commissioner of education was at Camden-Rockport Middle School on May 17, the place where he taught from 2000 to 2007, and where his daughter is in the sixth grade.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen lives in Rockport and was in the neighboring community of Camden for one of his listening tour events. He has traveled the state to hear concerns about education, and discuss his goals and philosophy.

He got feedback on technology in schools, best practices, the role of teachers in the 21st century, charter schools, innovative schools, the sending of students to other districts, standards-based education, special education, and school consolidation.

Bowen listed a series of challenges facing Maine’s education system. He also talked a lot about standards-based education, rather than progress marked by ages and classroom grades. That, and charter schools to a degree, were parts of a solution to the concerns he raised.

The first concern was measuring student progress. “Although everybody is working harder than ever, in terms of the way we traditionally measure the effectiveness of our system — test scores, standardized tests and graduation rates — we just don’t seem to be moving the needle,” Bowen said.

That led to challenge number two: “The things that we’ve done to deal with problem one are making it worse, to a certain degree,” Bowen said. He cited a focus on testing and a narrowing of curriculum.

“We focus on language arts and math, and we’re pouring resources into those and we’re shutting down art programs, we’re shutting down PE programs, we’re shutting down shop programs… And the kids are pushing back because they feel hemmed in.”

Bowen said a University of Indiana study showed that 67 percent of students are bored at school every day. “We have a huge engagement issue,” Bowen said.

Bowen said these challenges are “killing our people.” He said there is a potential shortage of teachers and administrators. “They’re asked to run faster on the wheel but it doesn’t seem to pay off,” Bowen said. “And we’re asking them to do something that no generation of educators has ever been asked to do before. And that is to bring every single one of these kids to a high level of proficiency on rigorous standards. We never asked educators to do that before.”

He said the way to move past this — and this is also a challenge — involves “systemic change on a massive scale.” Bowen said core pieces include age-based grade levels, the way students are graded, and report cards. It is a problem of design, he said.

“This system was not designed to do what we need it to do,” Bowen said. “It was designed for an era where 20 percent of the kids were going to go to college, 20 percent were going to work in towns in the banks and the businesses and they needed a little higher level of education and the remaining kids were going to work at the tannery, they were going to fish, they were going to work in the woods, on the farm, the mill. And they just didn’t need a high level of education. And so we built a system to do that, and now we’re trying to make it do something else.”

The fifth challenge was all encompassing. “There isn’t any more money,” Bowen said. He said moving to a student-focused model based on standards would require the system to be changed similar to “rebuilding the airplane while we’re flying.”

Bowen said standards-based education can help students prepare for the new economy by teaching them to think imaginatively, work collaboratively across cultures, and make sense of an overwhelming amount of data.

“The promise of [standards-based education] is, kids are going to be able to move at their own pace. And they’re going to have the ownership piece,” Bowen said. “One of the beauties of this thing is the way that you demonstrate mastery of the standard is determined by the student.”

Audience members asked how students progress through a standards-based education system, how colleges can assess the students, and the teacher-student ratio.

The issue of charter schools was raised by Five Town CSD Assistant Superintendent Michael Weatherwax. “Tell me why the department is supporting charter schools in Maine when that money can be better spent on all kids in Maine, not just a few kids,” he asked.

Bowen said he and the administration support charter schools and schools of choice. “Charter schools, where they are allowed … are there because parents, families, and kids have decided that is where the best educational opportunities for them are,” Bowen said. “When we talk about draining resources, I bridle at that a little bit because I see it as the money going where the most effective education for the child is.”

Bowen said charter schools are not a silver bullet, but they can be innovative. He could only envision a “handful” of charter schools in Maine. He said he would be stunned to see five in the next five years.

A parent said her child would have to attend a hometown mediocre school, even though there is an excellent school less than a mile away.

Bowen said Gov. Paul LePage is a “school choice supporter.” He said a dynamic tuition model may be proposed in the next legislative session.

“What we need to do is fine tune the system that dictates how the money goes with the kids, not just the authority of who gets to decide, but where the money goes,” Bowen said.

Bob Lawson, chairman of the Five Town CSD School Board, asked if the Department of Education can help schools by providing models that have worked in other states or countries.

Bowen said the department can serve as a resource, but called the current website “atrocious.” “It’s not the kind of very robust resource it needs to be,” he said.

Alan Hinsey of the Many Flags Foundation discussed that educational model. Bowen said the governor likes that model.

Gloria Delsandro of the Vinalhaven School said schools need more time — time to plan, and time with students.

Deborah Kent, a school board candidate from Waldoboro, asked about the expense of special education. “I’m watching the budgets increase, and I’m watching them cut sports and music and art,” Kent said. “And I’m watching special ed grow and grow and grow. Are you going to address that?”

Bowen acknowledged that special education is a “massive” cost. But there are federal requirements, he said, even if federal and state funding to local school districts for those programs has been cut. The districts are at the end of the line, he said.

Carol Hathorne, principal of Hope Elementary School, said she has more students and less money, in part because of penalties for districts that have not consolidated. Bowen said there is a proposal to leave the penalties for this year but remove them in future years. Bowen also said he supports funding to build regional capacity, not necessarily district mergers.

Loren Andrews, a Regional School Unit 13 school board member, asked how standards-based education fits into concepts of “The Global Achievement Gap,” a book by Tony Wagner.

Wagner argues that today’s students are not self-starters, and are risk adverse and afraid of failure. Bowen said student ownership would be key to creativity, innovation and problem solving.

“These kids live in a different era, and communicate in a different way,” Bowen said. “How do you reinforce to them — when they’re communicating in 140 characters — that they need to be able to sit down and write a 10-page paper that is very thoughtful and explores ideas? That’s going to be an increasingly tougher sell. But obviously it’s a need, a huge need.”