n this March 12, 1999 file photograph, a student fills in his answer to the practice test question for a standardized test, in Roswell, Georgia. Credit: Anitta C. Charlson / Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT

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Ian M. Mette is associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Maine. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university.

Like every other state across the country, Maine has experienced firsthand the effects of the accountability movement the last 20 years. During this time, the children of Maine have felt a palpable shift in instruction — one that focuses increasingly on testing outcomes and instruction that is based on rote memorization repetition, and predetermined pacing guides. Back in the early 2000s policymakers told educators these accountability efforts would help identify discrepancies across groups, specifically among racial and socioeconomic demographics and help close achievement gaps between these groups. Through state and federal accountability policies the public education system was supposed to improve.

Fast forward two decades since the inception of No Child Left Behind and there is an American education system that spends $694 billion annually and yet we still have immense disparities in our society. In America, Black students are disproportionately underrepresented in honors and advanced placement courses compared to their white peers, implicit biases about race are often not discussed in school settings, and funding inequities between impoverished and wealthy schools continue to widen gaps between socioeconomic and racial groups.

Despite the immense amount of money spent on education, our system is failing to provide equitable instructional outcomes to every American. And without an educational system that is able to reflect and question what is equitable, we will never be able to provide democratic outcomes for all American citizens.

So how can education help lead this important change in our society? How does what we encourage educators to teach lead to a more democratic society? What does it mean to engage students in meaningful debates about race, class, and gender? Perhaps most importantly, what type of leadership is required for schools to function more democratically and encourage open debate about issues of social justice?

The answers to these questions lie with what is reinforced by educational leaders starting at the top and moving down. School systems remain bureaucratic institutions, often highly political systems that reflect attitudes, values, and beliefs about communities. As American educators rethink the role of PK-12 public schools, we are beginning to see a sharp shift and rebuke of standardized tests and a shift towards understanding what it means to provide learning experiences that shift away from a Eurocentric paradigm.

One of the biggest influences school districts and education preparation programs can have on increasing social equality is through the unabashed support for teachers and administrators to provide experiences and receive professional development that allows them to learn how to empower and inspire social change in a democratic society. By increasing these opportunities for Maine students, our educators can create learning laboratories that can lead to incredible outcomes. These include, but are not limited to, increasing parental engagement in schools with high levels of students living in poverty, revamping a Eurocentric curriculum, ensuring students from low socio-economic backgrounds have equal access to advanced coursework, engaging in difficult conversations about racial constructs in America, and reimagining what quality supervisory feedback looks like in a virtual environment to ensure teachers reflect on engaging instructional practices as we continue to deliver content online.

The biggest mistake American educators can make is to continue to think we don’t play a valuable role in helping maintain and improve our democratic society. The opposite is true. We play the most crucial of roles in America to ensure our schools are equitable, able to transform societal outcomes, and make certain educational equity for all students is achieved.

And to accomplish this lofty goal of contributing towards a more democratic society, we must understand fully what education is capable of accomplishing if we accept that we cannot maintain the same school systems of the last 20 years. In order to help our schools be more democratic and in order to help support a vibrant Maine in the 21st century, we must support the development of scholarly-practitioners who are ready to take on the leadership challenges in a changing world. If you are an educator in Maine — whether a teacher, administrator, counselor, or instructor in higher education — you have the moral obligation to empower your system to work collaboratively with communities to address the inequities that exist.