Text and Subtext: What to Expect in Education

photo by Flickr user shersh

Following this year's significant wind-shifts in Augusta, Maine's beleaguered schools are warily scanning the chop for emergent cross-currents.

In these first days of the new legislature, there are, as yet, few bills to critique and no new Commissioner to give a face to administrative initiatives. Nonetheless, the general mood is plain enough. So, here, in the first of two parts, is what we can read of it so far:

The Governor’s agenda

As befits a man of succinct convictions, the Governor so far has been both direct and brief, offering only this, at his inaugural address, for what he expects of Maine’s schools:

"One area where we must put politics and special interests aside is education. Students are the most important people in the classroom. Every decision we make and every dollar we spend must be focused on the individualized needs of our kids.

Our standards need to be high, administration must be lean and we have to make sure we find solutions that work for all students.

I believe we need to make vocational education a priority again in our schools. Training our young people in a trade while they earn their diploma is a path to a good living.

I believe we also need to create five year high schools in Maine where students can graduate with an associate's degree that is a leg up for entering the workforce. And these credits can be transferred into our four year degree universities, reducing the time and expense of earning a college degree in Maine."

Two weeks into the Governor's term, we can now draw clear inferences about what the Governor means when he refers to a constituency as a "special interest group" and, in this context, this must be understood as a shot across the bow of the Maine Education Association's cranky side-wheeler.

Preceding LePage, many earnest progressives have buttressed their own reform pitches with a stock entreaty to "put kids first." So, here, when the Governor declares as an irrefutable fact that "students are the most important people in the classroom," this second barrel warning shot should be understood for its unspoken corollary, a preemptive dismissal of teachers' interests -- at least as represented by their collective bargaining organization -- as secondary at the very best and, more likely, downright regressive.

The irony, of course, is that the MEA, which is popularly reviled for what some claim is out-sized political influence, in these times appears incapable of forming even a mild countering narrative.

In a frequent assertion that he wants to "put the savings in the classroom" the Governor reflects a sentiment which holds that it honors the work of individual teachers yet abhors the organization that exists to convert their collective interest into political influence. This bears an odor of paternalism that minorities and feminists, in particular, find familiar.

Having emptied this broadside against Labor, the Governor then conveys the rest of his education vision within his own comfortably protracted metaphor of business - accountability and quantifiable Return on Investment.

All evidence suggests that the Governor is sincere in his beliefs both that public education needs to be responsive to individual needs and that such goals can be accomplished within streamlined framework like an industrial product.

But, in some significant ways, these two positions will be reconciled only through some significant trade-offs.

A call for high standards ordinarily suggests more standardization and subsequent uniform accountability. But, at the same time, offering a broader array of innovative educational opportunities is likely to require contradictorily broader measures for individualized accomplishment. And making everyone accountable for wider varieties of personalized learning is likely to depend on more nimble and lean educators rather than fewer.

It will be instructive to see how an administration primarily dedicated to less governmental interference ends up realizing its own brands of reform.

Next week: The Legislature’s agenda.