Maine schools are at a crossroads.
Earlier this year, the legislature repealed a six-year-old mandate requiring districts to abandon their traditional graduation requirements and move toward proficiency-based diplomas. Some schools have decided to stay the course on proficiency standards, and others have chosen to return to the former credit-based system. Some districts, though, are still uncertain about how to proceed.
Things can get a bit chaotic inside Marcia Buker Elementary School in Richmond. The fourth and fifth grades are combined, and students share four teachers. They dart from classroom to classroom throughout the day in a way that looks more like high school.
In the afternoon, students participate in what are called "applied learning seminars," where they get to decide what they want to learn. Students work in small groups and ask big questions that they'll eventually answer over the course of a few weeks.
This transformation, towards a process the district calls "personalized learning," began about a decade ago. Students now receive grades of 3's and 4's instead of A's and B's. They can re-do assignments. And they're constantly grouped and regrouped into different classes, depending on how far along they are in a certain subject.
Fifth grader William Cooper says the new approach requires more responsibility, but has pushed him academically.
"It moves you out of your comfort zone," Cooper says. "But then it extends your comfort zone once you get used to it."
This district, RSU 2, says that it has seen success with this model as it's moved toward "proficiency-based diplomas," which were mandated in 2012. The law required students to be "proficient" in certain content areas in order to graduate. It did not mandate that schools change how they teach, but many districts still adopted reforms like new grading systems, software and re-do's on tests. Yet with limited resources and guidance on how to implement so many changes, some schools struggled.
"Basically funding, the time to do this, the staff to do it, the resources to do it, and being sure we're able to meet the needs of all students were major, major concerns," says Maine Education Association President Grace Leavitt.
Those concerns, and similar worries from parents, ultimately led the state to repeal the proficiency-based diploma mandate this past July. The repeal has left many districts facing a major decision: to either continue implementing the new diploma system, or to revert back to credit-based diplomas that have been used for decades.
For some the decision has been relatively simple. In York, Superintendent Lou Goscinski says members of the community had already opposed proficiency-based education, so it made sense to return to a credit-based system.
“We decided to jump on that early after the law changed, because we knew there wasn't a lot of support for that particular model moving forward," Goscinski says.
Meanwhile, districts like RSU 2 and some in the St. John Valley have already pledged to continue with their reforms.
But for some districts, such as RSU 9 in Farmington, "it's an open question.”
Superintendent Tina Meserve says that she supports many aspects of proficiency-based education, but she worries that the new law could create two unequal diploma systems with different requirements. Meserve points to subjects such as health and world languages, which are required for a proficiency-based diploma, but not for a credit-based one.
"So what I've told the [local school board] is, if it stays that way, I'm going to recommend we go to a traditional transcript," she says. "Because you don't not give someone a diploma because they can't show proficiency in world language when a kid across the river is getting a diploma because they're in a traditional-based transcript."
Eileen King, the deputy director for the Maine School Management Association, says the new law also opens up questions about how to treat students who move to a new school district.
"So how do we honor students that transfer from a high school that's doing credit-based to proficiency, or vice versa?" King says. "So that's becoming a real discussion — and struggle. We're going to have kids in two systems."
Last week, the Maine Department of Education released its first guidance to districts explaining the difference between the two diploma systems. In an email, the Department's Chief of Planning and Implementation, Mary Paine, says it's likely that the Legislature will have to step in and help sort out some of the uncertainties.
But for now, Paine says that the Department plans to have more conversations with stakeholders, and "decide on the direction we need to take."
"But we—we being the Department, educators, legislators—we owe it to our students and parents to give them a basic level of assurance that the quality of a child’s education is not a matter of where the family lives or the school they choose to attend," Paine writes.
For disclosure, the Maine Education Association represents most of Maine Public's news staff. Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.