Students head for their buses at York Middle School in September 2017. Maine will no longer require students to show proficiency in order to get a high school diploma. That's a failure to ensure all Maine students will be prepared for the 21st-century workplace. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

The governor recently signed into law legislation repealing the mandate for proficiency-based diplomas. At the same time, this legislation — LD 1666 — made meeting the standards optional for students.

While many hailed this as a victory, just as many were saddened by our failure to stay the course and ensure all students, regardless of ZIP code, were prepared for the world after high school.

Those most saddened were the County Teachers of The Year, including the Maine Teacher of the Year, who begged the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee to stay the course.

So much for “letting teachers teach.” If only cliches prepared our children for the 21st-century workplace. If only cliches were a guarantee of equity across the state. If only cliches were enough. They are not.

Proficiency-based learning suffered from a lack of support from the Maine Department of Education and became a source of frustration for a lot of districts. There was not enough support even though the department made internal changes and brought on more people to deliver the support when this policy made its way through the Legislature.

[How Maine hurt education by trying to reform it]

The concept of proficiency-based learning is not new. Career and Technical Centers have been delivering proficiency-based learning for decades. Here’s the difference between the two systems.

Four out of five questions correctly answered on a test is an 80 percent and is considered a passing grade in school. Everyone is familiar with this century-old format.

However, four out of five lug nuts put on your tire when it gets changed is also 80 percent correct. You can drive 50 miles, maybe 100 miles or even 1,000 miles before your tire falls off and you crash. In a nutshell, proficiency-based education is about making sure that all five lug nuts are on the tire before leaving the shop so you can safely drive down the road of life.

The tires would fall off when students entered my culinary arts program at Hancock County Technical Center. All had “passed” math, but many could not do fractions, decimals, percentages or ratios. Not only did the tires fall off, but the cake with 2 pounds of baking soda instead of 2 ounces actually blew up in the oven.

As a business owner, I see the tires fall off when high school graduates who come to work for me cannot do simple math or even write complete sentences. Entry-level positions in my restaurant require some math and communication skills, but after a few years of mastering the technical skills needed to run a restaurant, the time comes to move up the ladder and perform more management and leadership tasks.

If you can’t write well, you can’t write menus. If you can’t do math, you can’t price the menu to make a profit. It is at this point the 30-something realizes the cruel joke played on him or her — passing school with grade averages of 70 percent but without the skills needed to compete in the workplace.

[From A’s and F’s to 3’s and 4’s: Why ‘proficiency-based grading’ is so controversial in Maine]

It is at this point when many become disenfranchised, and it hits men harder than women. We have 37,000 working-age men sitting on the sidelines in Maine out of the workforce. As a BDN editorial noted last year, “Key unknowns about them include how many have felonies, the role of addiction and crucially how these men can be reached and encouraged back into work.”

I see this on a daily basis when these men come in the back door looking for a job. Many come with a record. Not having the skills to compete in the workforce creates a pipeline into the death spiral of addiction and despair, arrests and convictions.

But they have a diploma.

The days of low-skill, high-wage jobs are gone in our economy, while skilled trade and technical jobs are going unfilled in record numbers. The disconnect could not be more stark, just ask any employer.

Responding to the outcries from the business community, military and post-secondary institutions that too many students were leaving high school unprepared, this administration supported proficiency-based diplomas.

Simply put, that system requires school districts to certify that our kids are proficient in meeting state standards in order to earn a diploma. The “how we get there” is totally up to the school district.

The charge was simple: the adults who come in contact with our students must certify they are proficient in order to receive a diploma. And this is where the friction comes from.

Holding the adults accountable puts a lot of pressure on those in charge. It is uncomfortable to be held accountable, but that’s what it means to be an adult. As adults, we failed.

Brian Langley, a Republican, is the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. He represents Senate District 7.

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