Maine’s Battle Over Common Core Part Two 

In part one of this series, opponents of Common Core Standards took their turn voicing their concerns about the potential ramifications of implementing the educational standards in Maine.

In part two, Maine’s Education Commissioner, Jim Rier, defends the standards. Rier says that when 30 percent of Maine high school graduates require remedial classes when they get to college, there’s a problem.

The Maine Learning Results, more commonly known as Common Core Standards, are currently being implemented statewide and Rier believes they’ll go a long way toward solving the problem. Critics call Common Core the biggest experiment in the history of public education. But Rier says the rigorous standards will help the modern day student succeed.

“I don’t want to associate the word experiment with testing, but it’s a new approach that we think is appropriate. The days of having paper and pencil tests is just not sufficient,” Rier said.

Rier and his staff argue that when we have some Maine schools where only 20 percent of their students are proficient in math and English, but they’re graduating 90 percent of their students, there’s a problem. They say the new proficiency based diplomas will make sure that students are demonstrating their proficiency in critical areas and reduce the need for remedial courses when they arrive at college.

“We’re graduating students based on the time they’ve spent attending classes and maybe the way the teacher has assessed them, but may or may not have a direct connection as to whether the student is proficient or not.”

Critics are also angry with the data collection that goes along with Common Core, calling the collection of data like income levels, test scores, and other information an invasion of privacy. Rier says the data helps teachers get a better idea of how students are learning and where they need improvements. He adds that information like income levels is already collected to determine whether a student qualifies for the free and reduced lunch program and he chalks up much of the criticism to a misinformation campaign.

“Some of what I’ve seen and read about the accusations of all these things we’re collecting from students and then sharing at the federal level with all sorts of other entities is just not true,” Rier said.

Rier and other supporters of Common Core say much of the opposition is built on a foundation of misinformation, some of it bordering on ludicrous. Rier specifically referenced a DVD he was recently given depicting some of the falsehoods that are going around. The DVD depicted students in a classroom where the look on their face was being documented while they were taught a particular subject matter like the specifics of the gay marriage debate. At the same time a student’s pulse was being taken. Every few minutes a shot of the National Security Agency headquarters would pop up on the screen, implying that the information being obtained was being fed to the NSA.

Another popular piece of misinformation swirling around is the notion that the state and federal government are collecting and storing social security numbers from students which Rier says is blatantly untrue. Supporters of Common Core say it’s this sort of lunacy that is making it difficult to have a fair debate on the merits of the Common Core Standards.

“None of that stuff is even remotely true but yet people are being alarmed by it,” Rier said.

Rier says there is one positive that seems to be coming from all the misinformation out there. It’s at the very least beginning to pique people’s interest and starting a public dialogue about Common Core.

“I deal with people every day who will make all kinds of accusations about the standards and they don’t have a clue what they say. It’s not easy to look through them but now that I’m more familiar with them I’m anxious when somebody makes some accusation about them. Then I can say ‘okay what page are you on here and what mass standards are you looking at’.”

Another driver of the misinformation seems to be the confusion between the Common Core Standards and the implementation of Mass Customized Learning.

Mass Customized Learning has been implemented in a few districts in Maine including RSU #18 and in Jackman where parents have given it a rude reception. Under the MCL curriculum students don’t get grade point averages and the A-F grading system is replaced by a 1-4 style that many parents find confusing. Parents we’ve talked to also say MCL has removed the motivation for a child to excel and some of those parents have pulled their kids from public schools where MCL is being implemented.

But MCL has nothing to do with the standards set by a state. It is simply the vehicle that school boards can choose to get their students on the road to a proficiency based diploma. Maine Department of Education spokesperson Samantha Warren says MCL is a local decision that the department has nothing to do with.

“That is one approach to proficiency based education but that is not something that’s led by the department,” Warren said.

As outrageous as some of the claims against Common Core Standards are, Warren says it’s easy to see why they gain traction.

“I don’t want to comment on whether or not I think the implementation is good or not of Mass Customized Learning, but you have unsuccessful implementations in some places and those become urban legends. They have nothing to do with the standards. They have nothing to do with proficiency based education and nothing to do with anything coming from the state. Those are local decisions.”

Officials at the Maine Department of Education say a proficiency based diploma shows students are able to demonstrate proficiency in all subjects using multiple pathways and they argue colleges will soon look more favorably on this than the traditional diploma.

Students will move through grade levels as soon as they become proficient in the standards set by the state. For example, one standard for literacy for a ninth and tenth grader:

“Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization and style are appropriate to task, purpose and audience.”

That’s just one of hundreds of standards in a variety of subjects a student needs to be proficient in to advance through the tenth grade.

Rier says students will still have the option of taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes and have chances to excel, but things like curriculum, grading structure and what a report card will look like will be left up to individual school boards. When it comes to getting into college, students will still take tests like the SAT and ACT.

“But there’s still work to do with colleges who have been fully up to speed and apprised of what these so-called Common Core Standards are and how to deal with them in accepting students,” Rier said.

While it’s possible a student could fly through school at a much faster rate, officials at the department say they’re not concerned about a student being ready to graduate early. They are worried about the other end of that spectrum, a student who surpasses the traditional high school age who won’t be able to reach the high bar of proficiency. As of now, they still don’t know how they’ll handle those students.

“I think our challenge is to look at the standards going forward, make sure they’re rigorous by reviewing them and ultimately make changes that are appropriate for maine and reflective of what we want maine students to know and be able to do,” Rier said.

To see the Maine Learning Standards: