Hand-wringing won’t fix our schools

By Kathreen Harrison | Jun 08, 2014

There is a lot of hand-wringing in the media about the mediocre (and worse) test scores of children in many of our public schools in Maine.

Yet leaders make educational decisions that fly in the face of research, cutting programs that boost intellectual development, and those that encourage buy-in from students to schooling. Physical activity and play — the natural elements of childhood — have been practically eliminated from many children’s school days. After we have done all this we should not be surprised to find student scores on measures of learning are less than stellar.

If Gov. Paul LePage's school report cards are useful at all, it is to show that in the majority of districts in our state Maine does not provide what students need to do well on the tests he values. The irony is that by cutting state funding to schools he is ultimately responsible for cuts to programming that help degrade those very student scores.

I believe what LePage is missing is a recognition that you can't just focus exclusively on math and literacy skills, and hope to bang into student's brains the answers to current standardized test questions. These tests are very different from those some of us might remember from our own childhoods. Contemporary tests increasingly require the use of critical thinking skills, and this kind of thinking is the outgrowth of a broad, rich, developmentally-appropriate curriculum taught by excellent teachers who are given what they need to do what they love as well as they possibly can.

A serious complication to the approach of strip-the-curriculum bare and pursue two or three subjects with relentless determination, is that most students won’t do their best if they don’t like school. If hands-on, imaginative, project-based learning is the purview of schools backed by only the more educated families, then test scores will continue to track by poverty level.

Local school district leaders who are dissatisfied with test results in their schools need to make the effort to open a conversation with their teachers and see if they can help figure out the heart of the problem of low educational outcomes. Throwing darts and wringing hands is clearly not working. It's time to take off the gloves and begin the hard — but exciting — work of really improving our schools.

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