About 200 students attend the Williams School. Nominally, these students are in the third, fourth, and fifth grades. But, for the past several years, the school has been piloting a transition to proficiency-based learning in which students more flexibly group and regroup, irrespective of grade level, for different subject areas depending on their immediate individual learning goals.
We visited during the school’s schedule-block for math. In one classroom, the students were using a variety of tools to learn the fundamentals of multiplication. In another, the topic was time. Next door: geometry. Down the hall, it was money and currency. In another classroom, on the floor with their teacher, students were studying division by doing punctuated sets of abdominal crunches. In each class, the kids understood both the specific tasks and how they could demonstrate their understanding of the concepts.
It’s always a privilege for an outsider to visit a working public school classroom. And it was an exceptional privilege to sit in the classroom of Shelly Moody, the 2011 Maine Teacher of the Year, shown in the photo above discussing with her students and legislators the ‘Habits of Mind’ related to learning.
Once students are given a little opportunity for authority over their own learning, no one should doubt that great things are possible every day in classrooms like these in Maine’s public schools under the premises that:
- Learners learn in different ways and in different time frames.
- Learners like to learn, can learn, and want to be successful.
- Learners learn best in a safe and welcoming environment.
- Learning is enhanced when connected to relevant, real-world experiences.
- Success breeds success and influences attitude, esteem, and motivation.
- Mistakes are inherent to learning.
The list above is from the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, a cooperative of 29 school districts that are collaborating to implement this vision to more nimbly meet students’ individual learning needs – something that successful small schools with multi-aged classrooms have long practiced. I’m proud that MDI schools are full partners in this effort.
Perhaps it’s surprising that this effort is championed by Educate Maine, an association of business leaders who have concluded that good education is the most efficient route towards improving Maine’s prosperity.
I must admit that I started fundamentally suspicious of this interest group whose antecedents, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education, were organizations which played rough with the more disadvantaged parts of the state during Maine’s school consolidation wars.
In their school-related advocacy, these previous organizations often seemed inclined to the top-down arrogance modeled by national corporate education remodelers, marked both by disrespect towards teachers as professionals and an egg-busting conviction that any systems analyst with a cocktail napkin could diagram a better way to widget kids through a pipeline more efficiently and with more remunerative brain content than could woolly-headed educators.
In contrast, Educate Maine, funded largely now by New England’s Nellie Mae Education Foundation, seems to have matured and found more common ground for advocacy.
Forgiving their disposition still to see schools primarily as a metaphorical pipeline, one can’t be critical that business leaders have a naturally enlarged interest in ‘work force’ skills. Rather, Maine should be grateful that these guys understand that early and comprehensive education yields a significant return on investment.
Moreover, I’m heartened to hear Educate Maine and their partners underscore that the most essential skills aren’t technical and specific to any particular business. What’s needed, they say, are graduates who can communicate clearly, think critically, and work collaboratively to solve unpredictable and complex problems.
Towards this end the business community is initiating several promising efforts. The Maine Early Learning Investment Group, in partnership with the Maine Development Foundation, is pledging to raise private money to support pre-kindergarten education.
On the other end of K-12, Educate Maine and their partners are developing Project Log-in, a web portal to connect Maine students with technology-related education and professional opportunities.
Most importantly, these groups appear to respect and support the innovation that is happening collaboratively in schools like Williams Elementary and understand that the work of these teachers to support self-motivated nine-year-old creative thinkers complements businesses’ own long-term visions for success.
Increasingly deprived of funding and frequently mischaracterized as resistant to innovation, public schools in Maine should welcome every ally in support of the common purpose of improving educational capacity and equity. Maine’s future well-being depends on forging the joint interests of business and education into such common cause.
This past week, two eighth-graders from Tremont, Parker Murphy and Andrew Jewett, came to Augusta to testify in support of LD 370, An Act To Increase Elementary School Applied Learning Opportunities, a bill that was inspired by Tremont’s effort to broaden school-day opportunities for middle-schoolers to engage in hands-on learning in partnership with local businesses.
Supported by a successful student appeal at Tremont’s town meeting, these students have enjoyed short-term seminars on tree-trimming, cooking, woodworking, and small engine repair.
They testified that previously they hadn’t been much interested in conventional school work. But they spoke appreciatively about this ‘Options Program,’ seeming genuinely engaged in their learning and looking forward to more.