A recent breakfast gathering of retired elementary school educators led to a conversation about a recent newspaper headline (“Maine students’ math and reading scores plummet during pandemic,” Oct. 24). As former teachers and ed techs in a Maine district, we weren’t surprised. But we continue to hope for success on all levels for our former students — as the article emphasized, there are more pieces to each puzzle and to each student than just test scores, and we need to look closely to be sure all the pieces are available to every student.

Reading, writing and math have always been a focus, but we integrated these into a wider educational experience that included social studies, STEM and the arts, as well as critical thinking and problem solving. In 2013, the Press Herald reported that Maine students were above the national average in math and reading. Maine students excelled.

Our students’ recent steep decline in test scores can and should include consideration of the impact of school closures, hybrid learning, virtual teaching and learning largely in isolation during the pandemic.

But can we place all the blame on the pandemic, or is there a larger problem?

Over eggs at breakfast, we former teachers agreed that the last decade’s curriculum changes have had a cumulative effect on education. Any parent who has wanted to help a youngster solve a multiplication problem may have had trouble aligning the popular Everyday Mathematics — which gives up standard algorithms for “new” math — with their own understanding of numbers.

My former colleagues and I spoke about the lack of mastery associated with Everyday Math. In fact, we bemoaned trainers’ and administrators’ directions to “trust the spiral” — meaning, don’t expect understanding and/or mastery at any point, just go on to the next lesson; perhaps the students will get it next time. As educators, we were directed to teach from the script rather than from content knowledge or with a goal of meeting student needs.


Teachers College Reading and Writing Project curricula, developed by literacy expert Lucy Calkins, were also commonly adopted more than a decade ago by many Maine school districts, including our own. Often these, too, were set up with expectations to keep moving ahead, whether or not a student progressed toward mastery of the skills in a day’s lesson. In our district, we all were even expected to be teaching the same lesson on any given day. It was hardly what any of us considered student-centered teaching.

Getting “back to basics” in this case meant losing a large number of puzzle pieces necessary for lifelong learning.

Although both processes were more curriculum-guide directed than most of us had ever experienced in our years in education, like good sheep we implemented the district’s approved curriculum — even when it didn’t meet our personal philosophy of teaching or the students’ needs. For the last decade and a half, we were told to follow the curriculum. The pieces of the puzzle known as learning and mastery were pushed aside for the purpose of moving with the group.

What we lamented at breakfast was the larger impact of plowing forward with lessons even when the basic skills aren’t in place. The “one size fits all” method of teaching has left our students with fewer skills than any time in the past decade, and the test scores reflect it. Every student who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and whose scores tanked, has had less exposure to a full menu of experiences and opportunities than in the past. We need to take responsibility for reevaluating what will bring student success, not just on tests, but in life.

For all those who profess “test scores are only one piece of the student puzzle,” the bigger problem is that the puzzle is missing integral parts to complete the educational picture. It’s time to hand back the “canned” curricula and provide a wide range of academics to Maine’s students.

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