The Universal Notebook: Let’s stop reforming public education

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There was an outside chance, albeit remote, that I might have voted for Eliot Cutler for governor on Nov. 2, but Mr. Cutler lost my vote last week when he charged that Libby Mitchell and the Maine Education Association had formed “an unholy alliance” to block education reform.

Not sure where Cutler has been, China I guess, but if he had been in Maine he might have noticed that our public school systems have been through paroxysms of reform in recent years with public school teachers responding to every new initiative while continuing to do a damn good job educating our kids.

Maine teachers have put a tremendous amount of energy into programs to raise the aspirations of students, alternative and experiential education, the state’s first-in-the-nation laptop computer program, establishing Learning Results and aligning curricula with them, administering the various iterations of the Maine Educational Assessment tests, and adapting to endless rounds of school consolidations and misguided federal mandates such as Bush’s bogus No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Race to the Top game.

No, Mr. Cutler, we don’t have charter schools or merit pay, but, personally, I’m not interested in a pontificating prep school grad telling me that our public schools are no good. The best schools in Maine are among the best in the country. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, kids today are a heck of a lot better educated than we were 40 years ago.

The problem is not teachers; it’s politicians. I have come to believe that it may be time to get politicians out of the education business altogether. I’ve been corresponding recently with a conservative friend, whose father was the assistant principal of our high school, and one of the few things we seem to agree on is that the U.S. Department of Education could usefully be eliminated, perhaps even the Maine Department of Education.

Local schools should be under local control. All we get from state and federal politicians and education bureaucrats are endless rounds of standardized tests, arcane funding formulas, and cost-saving schemes, none of which improve the quality of public education.

While driving back from Machias the other day, I listened to the gubernatorial candidates debate education on public radio. All five seemed to have adopted the business agenda that public education is essentially career preparation. Learn to earn. But the best education is education for its own sake. About the only thing that any of the candidates said that I agreed with is that schools should teach to the interests of individual students. And, much to my chagrin, it was Paul LePage who said that.

I have come to the reluctant conclusion that, though kids today are clearly smarter and more worldly than we were 40 years ago, we were probably better off pedagogically back in the 1960s, when high school students had more local options. Students bound directly for the workforce could concentrate either on a business curriculum or an industrial arts curriculum, and college-bound students could elect a college technical course with an emphasis on math and science or a college academic course strong in history and languages.

These days, a college degree has become the equivalent of the high school degree in 1967. You have to go to grad school to get ahead now. So every student is considered college-bound unless they elect to commute to an outsourced industrial arts program. And no one learns a thing about business, banking, finance, investment, insurance or real estate. No wonder we’re in such a mess.

I’ll be voting for Libby Mitchell, not enthusiastically, but because I have no other choice. She is the only candidate with a demonstrated commitment to public education in Maine.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.