This is an exciting time to be working on education policy in our state. A new federal law will put more power in the hands of Mainers to shape our public education system.

In December, President Barack Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, which was around for 15 years.

The biggest change that the new law puts in place is a decisive shift away from strict federal standards and toward more local and state control.

Maine faces both the challenge and the opportunity to take stock of the needs of our public schools and develop effective strategies to help our students succeed, no matter what part of the state they’re from or if they grew up in an economically disadvantaged home.

No Child Left Behind was too top-down for local districts to make needed adjustments. A rigid standardized testing policy in reading and math determined how schools were doing. Schools that had trouble meeting federal proficiency requirements, as measured through a slew of tests, were punished with a loss of funding or required to make other changes, like firing teachers.

Rather than closing the achievement gap, as it had set out to do, No Child Left Behind effectively widened it, leaving plenty of children behind – especially those from poorer ZIP codes.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, on the other hand, takes a bottom-up approach that allows for more flexibility and room for schools to chart their own course to student success.

When I speak with parents and educators in my community, they express a need for more focused learning time for students and less “teaching to the test,” while still holding our students and teachers accountable. The Every Student Succeeds Act provides the framework for these goals.

To the relief of parents, students and teachers everywhere, the law removes standardized testing from the pedestal it was placed on. Academic testing in third through eighth grades and high school will continue to be a component of measuring progress, but states will be able to limit the amount of time students spend taking tests, and parents will have more freedom to allow their children to opt out.

These moves will help Maine refocus our efforts on teaching and learning, rather than scrambling to meet unattainable goals from Washington.

The Every Student Succeeds Act recognizes that math and reading scores are only a snapshot, and that we need to find other ways to gauge less measurable but equally important learning outcomes, like critical thinking, creative problem-solving and fostering of lifelong learning.

The new law will allow states to decide what other measures of progress will be included in their accountability systems. School climate, graduation rates and other measures of success will balance what was the heavy reliance on standardized test scores. It also includes language that requires states to support arts education programs, which got short shrift under No Child Left Behind.

Every Student Succeeds expands access to early childhood education, recognizing the significance of a child’s earliest experiences in shaping future success in school and beyond. It will also give our state leeway in how we evaluate teachers – and raises the voices of teachers, parents and communities in conversations about reform.

Every Student Succeeds will go into effect in 2017, which will allow some time for Maine to determine where we are already doing well and where work needs to be done.

As the Maine Department of Education begins to pore over the 1,000-page new law, policymakers at both the state and local levels must implement the changes to create opportunities for all Maine students.

This is the time for creative solutions. We have a chance to evaluate where we need to make changes that will affect the lives of the over 185,000 students in Maine. We must work closely with stakeholders who have a deep understanding of Maine’s specific needs in both rural and urban communities. Without federal oversight, we will need to hold ourselves accountable.

Teachers, education leaders, policymakers and legislators now face the opportunity to decide at the state level what is important and what is right for our students and our schools. I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee to help roll out the law.

It is a lot of work, but the payoff is substantial: We can set the bar high and achieve great things for education in our state.

Education is the key to long-term economic success in Maine, and right now we have the opportunity to plant new seeds for that success.

Teresa Pierce is a first-term Democratic state representative from Falmouth and a member of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

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