Blog Post

Commentary: Crisis gives policymakers, families chance to learn from Maine’s charter schools

by | Apr 3, 2020 | Social and Emotional Health

April 18, 2020

The end of the emergency should be a time to assess how K-12 education needs to change to truly meet students’ needs.

Pender Makin, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Education, recently announced that Maine schools will keep their classrooms closed for the remainder of the school year. Almost four weeks into the pandemic, educators and parents still scramble to implement alternative structures as the traditional schooling model has been upended. Students with internet access are now learning from home, giving parents unprecedented insight into how their children learn. Meanwhile, teaching professionals realize that quality online learning requires skills for preparation, virtual conferencing and assessment that are very different from the demands of the typical classroom.

With kitchen tables now serving as classrooms, parents are firsthand witnesses to the fact that because each child is different, each child learns differently. The one-size-fits-all model for public education that we have created over the years can no longer accommodate the needs of all learners.

Successful educating creates conditions that bolster the child’s curiosity and engagement with the world. Technologies to support individualized learning are evolving faster than we could imagine. Virtual learning systems can do far more than transmit visual images. Used appropriately, they provide both teacher and learner with sophisticated feedback and assessment that incentivize both ongoing engagement and understanding. Large bureaucratic school districts nationally as well as in Maine have been slow to leverage the full power of these technologies into teaching. This pandemic has created the need to accelerate alternative overall approaches to learning and reimagining the role of teachers.

Once the emergency passes, Maine policymakers and families should use these lessons to reassess how K-12 education has been run and what needs to change to truly meet the needs of 21st-century learners. A good starting point would be the inherent flexibilities provided in the language approved on a bipartisan level in 2011.

  • “To provide alternative learning environments for students who are not thriving in traditional school settings.
  • “To create new professional opportunities for teachers and other school personnel.
  • “To encourage the use of different, high-quality models of teaching and other aspects of schooling; and
  • “To provide students, parents, community members and local entities with expanded opportunities for involvement in the public education system.”

This is the same bill that authorized charter schools to facilitate alternative ways of learning for students. Before this pandemic, Maine’s two virtual charter academies received ample opposition by some in the educational industrial complex. The new reality demonstrates how these schools provide successful alternatives to engage in learning. In addition to the virtual schools, seven other charter schools were established to offer equally innovative alternatives for educating students.

Maine’s Charter Commission provides excellent oversight and accountability whose level of scrutiny should apply for all schools. Across the nation, charter schools, such as RocketshipNoble Network, Breakthrough Cleveland and Mind Trust in Indianapolis, have produced impressive student outcomes that are concrete and objective. Those clear and measurable results have been missing from many of the district schools adopting blended learning, according to a recent University of New England study. Charter networks have also incorporated cost-effective back-office technologies that support more efficient systems administration. Applying these systems to the public-school sector will be critical as school funding suffers from lost sales and income tax revenue.

Despite the potential to learn from what charters do well, in 2019, Maine’s Legislature permanently capped the number of charter schools. In fact, some in the Legislature have been hostile to charters or any alternative to the current system that operates more as a command and control economy than a sponsor of innovation and ingenuity. Now is the time to change that.

As Commissioner Makin herself stated in her message to the schools, “We’re experiencing the loss of our basic and reliable systems and structures.” The pandemic shows us that no matter what political party one aligns, we need to rethink and reassess how we can bring education in Maine into the 21st century.

Unknowingly, Maine’s 2011 legislation provided the framework not only for these discussions to take place but also to provide models of how restructuring teaching, learning and administration can be done well. This terrible pandemic has revealed many structural weaknesses in both state and national governance. At the same time, it has also shown that when good leadership and communities come together, unimagined opportunity appears.