Think you can fix Maine schools?

Phil: I consider you an opinion leader when it comes to education. At LearningWorks, the agency you run, you’ve created an environment where some of the toughest kids in Maine are able to get their high school degree. Help me understand why so many Maine students drop out of school.

Ethan: A lot of students get lost when schools don’t have the resources or wherewithal to individualize education and create high-enough expectations. The system often decides who the winners and losers are pretty early.

Phil: Wouldn’t that suggest the so-called “losers” be moved right away to a nurturing environment? And the “winners” challenged to reach higher?

Ethan: Both must be challenged to reach higher through individualized educational experiences. And no, they shouldn’t be separated, as that simply keeps the lower performing kids performing lower. Think about your own life. When you are around high achievers, it improves your game. The same is true for lower-achieving students.

Phil: But doesn’t that hold the high achievers back?

Ethan: Again, think about your own life. When you are the high achiever, does mentoring others stall your development? Of course not. In fact, you often learn through helping others achieve. But let me also say, there are many other factors that cause young people to drop out: poverty, abuse, disabilities and parental indifference, to name a few.

Phil: When all of these factors are in the classroom, I don’t know how teachers can be expected to meet strict government-issued test results.

Ethan: Exactly. National tests that financially penalize failing schools, without taking into account the individual circumstances of kids and their classrooms, will never succeed at raising academic standards for all students.

Phil: Is it time to have parental factors in the testing scores for each student?

Ethan: You need to include those factors in the models we use for teaching and the resources allocated. If kids are hungry in school due to poverty, we need to feed them. If their parents can’t or won’t help them with homework, we need tutors. If kids are developmentally behind and need extra classes, we need to create after-school programming and extend the school year. It’s not about forgiving bad test scores due to parental indifference. It’s about compensating for the deficit with public support.

Phil: Are you suggesting we don’t do that now?

Ethan: Barely. Resources for longer school days, staff development and to create truly individualized learning are few and far between. What’s your answer to the drop-out crisis?

Phil: First, as Gov. Paul LePage said at LearningWorks’ recent graduation ceremony, the at-risk children we saw that day are just the tip of the iceberg. We must acknowledge a deep, systemic problem.

Ethan: On this issue, the governor and I agree 100 percent. Let me also publicly thank him for attending the event and speaking with our students. It’s not too often that someone of his significance hangs out with kids like ours. Not only that, I felt real joy from him as he handed each kid a diploma. He doesn’t always come across as the happiest of fellows, so it was nice to see.

Phil: Yes, it was a grand gesture and clearly heartfelt. Second, schools like yours should be embraced and offered as options for at-risk children and their parents. Next we must adapt to the way children learn today, not the way you and I did sitting in rectangular rooms with rows of desks. Finally, we must celebrate the youngster who wants to be a mechanic or carpenter the way we do college bound students.

Ethan: So what’s your policy angle? What should our governor and Legislature be doing to achieve those goals?

Phil:  As LePage says, students should come first. Let’s accept and embrace all types of learning environments whether it’s LearningWorks, chartered or traditional public schools. Let’s consider letting the dollars follow the students.

Ethan: But when you let the dollars follow the students, you are also letting the dollars leave other students behind. Those students who can’t travel, or who don’t have parents that care, or who aren’t accepted elsewhere. Isn’t it better to commit to all students in public schools and try to raise all boats?

Phil: That’s the philosophy we live by today, and the results are a blinding glimpse of the obvious. Are you suggesting we just need more money for the current system, and all will work for all students?

Ethan: Not in the least. New money should be tied to change in the form of staff development, incentives for excellence, extended learning opportunities. Plus, our schools need more flexibility around staffing and scheduling. But they also need better technology in our classrooms and sometimes better classrooms. So, yes, it will indeed take increased funding to improve our schools, but that funding must be tied to change that improves outcomes. Less is not more when it comes to our schools.

Phil: Imagine how creative the school environment would be if your suggestions could be implemented. All students could benefit from what is proven to work. Students and teachers would feed off of each other to create brighter futures and garner support from taxpayers and employers.

Ethan: Yes indeed. Look, you call LePage and get him to increase funding, and I’ll call Speaker of the House Mark Eves and Senate President Justin Alfond to get them to tie that money to excellence-based outcomes. Deal?

Phil: Deal. And maybe we can actually get them all in the same room to talk about it?

Ethan: Stop dreaming.