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Back to school, back to reform in Maine

A 'grand bargain' would give teachers better pay in exchange for flexibility to adopt new initiatives.

For many Maine students, today heralds the start of another school year. It is a time of hope and promise, but also anxiety. What will my new teacher be like? Will my friends still like me? How will I do with the new soccer coach? How long before the first holiday? You remember it all.

If you are a parent, chances are one of your concerns is about your daughter's or son's teacher. Will the teacher, or teachers for the older children, give your child the attention and guidance they need to learn and develop? There is much at stake, particularly if your child is getting close to a college selection.

We have played out these post-Labor Day dances for generations. Not much has changed, or has it?

Fifty years ago, the number of students completing high school was continuing to climb, reaching 75 percent by the mid-1970s. This graduation rate has essentially been flat since, while the rest of the developed world has reached or surpassed this level.

For our college grads, the situation is similarly disturbing. About 60 percent of high school graduates go on to higher education, but only about half of these students end up getting a four-year degree. You do the math. If 75 percent graduate from high school, 60 percent go on to college, and 50 percent graduate, then 75 percent x 60 percent x 50 percent equals 22.5 percent – which means that just over two out of 10 who start high school end up graduating from college.

This is not a pretty picture in an economy that is increasingly dependent on recipients of those with college degrees.

Week to week and year to year, it is hard to discern the steady decline in education results in this country, but step back 50 years and the real picture emerges. Most of the research on education reform has told us little about the root causes of this decline except to say that students have more options and more distractions, that parents have become less involved, and that throwing more money at the problem has yielded few discernible results.

The latest attempt to illuminate the problems in improving education in America is the book "Class Warfare" by Steven Brill.

Brill is a Yale Law graduate and the founder of Court TV. He became interested in education reform while doing a New Yorker article in 2009 on New York City's "rubber rooms," the places the city assigned teachers who were in the process of having their jobs terminated.

Brill found that the average time to resolve one of these cases was three years because of the arcane, complex set of protections negotiated by the New York City teachers' union.

He decided to dig deeper into the education reform movement, interviewing more than 200 reform-minded educators, charter school leaders and philanthropists. He has a reporter's eye for damning detail and a lawyer's sense of how to build a convincing case. "Class Warfare" is a good read.

Brill concludes that the teachers' unions are the principal barrier to improved education results. He has been criticized by some on the grounds that his critique of unions is anecdotal, and that states where unions are not strong have similarly disappointing results as states like New York with strong unions.

However, experience in Maine supports Brill's thesis. The Maine Education Association, the organization that represents teachers here, has been the major obstacle to virtually all of the reform initiatives in the past 20 years.

Most recently, the union opposed using student test data as a factor in teacher assessment. The MEA also opposed the modest charter school proposal passed in last year's legislative session. Before that, it opposed the recommendations of several state panels to adopt outcomes-based diplomas, and the union has consistently opposed making the teacher certification process more flexible to bring those with more diverse experience into teaching.

Certainly in Maine's history of education reform, the MEA has been the single biggest obstacle to change. Yet to improve education in Maine, we need MEA support.

I have thought for some time that a "grand bargain" for education reform in Maine is as clear as the "grand bargain" President Obama has talked about for the budget deficit. Maine's grand education bargain would be to offer significantly higher pay for teachers in return for more flexible rules for hiring and firing.

This school year may be the time for such a bargain. The real winners would be Maine's students.