K-12

TEACHER VOICE: Raising the bar on high school diplomas slams the doors on the weakest students

A Maine teacher of struggling readers expresses her concern for the state’s disenfranchised

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Freshman Kylee Elderkin works on an assignment in English class at Nokomis High School in Newport on Friday, June 2, 2017. Elderkin says she used to routinely miss key skills and do poorly on tests. The switch to a proficiency-based education, which focuses on making sure students can demonstrate what they know, has helped students like Elderkin.

Who isn’t in favor of high standards?

The recent three-part series on proficiency-based learning in Maine by The Hechinger Report’s Lillian Mongeau (which appeared in both The Report and the Portland Press Herald) is very informative on this topic. However, to make it necessary for a student to achieve “proficiency,” (defined as 80 percent or a grad of B or better) on eight high school exit exams in order to earn a diploma seems like an idea fraught with problems.

I’m sure a majority of our students can accomplish this, but my fear is for the students who cannot.

Related: How diplomas based on skill acquisition, not credits earned, could change education

Let’s look at why this law was proposed: Then-Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, who helped usher in proficiency-based diplomas, said that flat test scores were the reason for this regulation.

What that means is he wanted to help more students pass standardized tests.

It seems to me that these are the very children who will be harmed by this law.

Related: Why Maine’s new high school graduation rules could hurt more than help

As a Response to Intervention teacher working with struggling readers in Maine, I can tell you that there is always a percentage of students who work hard but cannot obtain above a “C” in all subjects.

If the aim of the proponents is to help these students, how is raising the bar going to help?

Wouldn’t a focus on proven ways to work with these students help more than a paradigm shift for all education in Maine?

Related: The future of proficiency-based education

Another problem is consistency. A stated reason is always that this will ensure that an A in northern Maine is the same as an A in southern Maine. However, as every district is creating its own assessments, this alone calls the law’s existence into question.

It also seems that it could increase the dropout rate, as students couldn’t see any end to retaking courses. I don’t think raising the number of young people with no job prospects because they have no diploma was what Stephen Bowen had in mind.

So why has Maine jumped in as the first state to mandate this ill-defined “experiment”?

Who is guiding these decisions?

What educators are being included?

It seems as if we should take a step back and provide the professional development needed to implement this idea so that all Maine’s children will benefit.

Creating high standards is always a good idea. Creating more young people with no “ticket to the future – a diploma” is not.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Kathleen Mikulka is a Response to Intervention teacher in Maine. She previously taught in Upstate New York, and received degrees in teaching and the teaching of reading from SUNY Albany. A version of this Op Ed appeared in the Portland Press Herald as a letter to the editor.

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Kathleen Mikulka

Kathleen Mikulka is Response to Intervention teacher in Maine. She previously taught in Upstate New York, and received degrees in teaching and the teaching of… See Archive

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RE: TEACHER VOICE: Raising the bar on high school diplomas slams the doors on the weakest students by Kathleen Mikulka

In response to Ms Milkulka's questions raised in her article:

Who is guiding these decisions? What educators are being included?

I do not know what district in Maine you are teaching in but in RSU 40 I can attest that everyone, teachers, administrators, the Board of Directors as well as the very overworked staff at the Maine DOE are working night and day to implement decisions that seem to come from on high. You appear to be confusing the old Carnegie Unit and its resulting As, Bs, etc, based on some whimsical 0-100 scale, for what is now happening. What is happening now is indeed putting more onos on teachers to grade according to proficiency at meeting many state standards, but taking it a step at a time and not jumping in (as I have learned) at changing all practices, along with giving students time and instruction where they are weak (instead of necessarily forcing them to repeat a full course) is being received extremely well by both our teaching staff and their students. Johnny who consistently got As is finding, along with his teachers, that he is weak in areas that would not show up until later when he encounters trouble. Cynthia, a perpetual C student is amazed at her new grasp of subject matter (she is now a strong B or 3 on the proficiency scale.Teachers who previously believed their way was the only way and that students must either get on board or fail are finding their way to possibly be full of holes needing addressing. Our teachers now work together to find solutions when such problems are encountered. Yes there are complaints, but after a hundred+ years of doing it one way, they are to be expected. Important change has never come easy.

You also state, "It seems as if we should take a step back and provide the professional development needed to implement this idea so that all Maine’s children will benefit."

If this is NOT being done in your district, there is definitely something wrong and someone to blame. If this is not being done, then I understand your grievance and pity your students for neither of you are being well served.

- from Guy Bourrie, Jul 05, 2017