RSU 18 schools embroiled in conflict over Mass Customized Learning



Inevitable, a book on Mass Customized Learning, details the system being implemented in RSU 18

UPDATE: The Maine Wire has learned that a member of the Messalonskee Middle School “Leadership Team” – a group of teachers and students run by Principal Mark Hatch – intends to voice objections to this story during Wednesday night’s school board meeting. Please be sure to follow The Maine Wire’s coverage of this very important debate unfolding in communities all across the state. 

Teachers at the Oakland area schools are objecting to a controversial new teaching system they claim has turned their students into guinea pigs in a failed educational experiment, but administrators contend that Mass Customized Learning (MCL) is inevitable.

According to letters obtained by The Maine Wire, there is widespread dissatisfaction in RSU 18, a school district comprised of eight schools in China, Belgrade, Oakland and Messalonskee, with the MCL program which has been implemented over the last four years.

One letter, written by an anonymous group of “concerned, dedicated teachers from RSU 18,” paints a dark portrait of the emerging conflict between MCL’s supporters and those who wish to conserve the traditional system of public education.

“We write to you as members of the RSU 18 faculty who want to express the feelings of so many who are afraid to speak up,” the group of educators stated in a May 5 letter to the district’s school board and several concerned parents. “We must report to you that MCL has shaken this school system to its very core.”

The teachers wrote the letter anonymously because they fear administrators in the district would seek retribution if their opposition to MCL became public. (Read the letter below)

“We are afraid to voice our opinions,” the teachers wrote. “We know the repercussions that would occur if we voiced our real feelings to the administration. We wallow in sadness at the poor educational model that we are forced to subject the children to. It is the children of this district that are suffering the most.”

The educational program in question is detailed in Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning – a field book for educators and administrators that has been provided to members of the RSU 18 community.

Education theorists Charles Schwahn and Bea McGarvey, authors of the field book, have stated that MCL “is about transformational change.” Under their program, there are no traditional grade levels or letter grades, no “home rooms,” and students advance according to their level of proficiency in a given subject.

MCL’s proponents argue that the system is not only inevitable, but a better alternative to the traditional model of education. However, according to some RSU 18 teachers, MCL has failed to live up to its hype, rendering the district’s students guinea pigs in a failed educational experiment.

“Students are receiving a hodge-podge of fragmented instruction that is nowhere near the level they were receiving in past years,” the teachers wrote. “Students are falling through the cracks as teachers scramble to put together shoddy MCL style instruction to satisfy deadlines and administrative expectations. Instead of personalized quality instruction as theorists explain MCL, students are receiving impersonal, rushed, superficial instruction because MCL deadlines need to be met and fake facades need to be created.”

“The primary purpose of MCL is to provide personalized and diversified instruction to each child that can be measured through a system of standards,” the teachers wrote. “The problem here is that the only people that truly believe this can occur are theorists. When we say ‘Theorists’ here, we really mean those who glorify [MCL] but don’t actually have to do it, such as our assistant superintendent.”

“It is an impossible task to provide this level of instruction to each child,” the teachers wrote. “It is very possible, however, to sit behind a desk at a central office and create propaganda and a false sense of success.”

In another letter to concerned parents, an RSU 18 teacher who asked to remain anonymous said Laughlin and Messalonskee Middle School Principal Mark Hatch have made it perfectly clear that the administration will not tolerate opposition to MCL.

“Linda Laughlin and Mark Hatch have both told staff, if you don’t like MCL it is time for you to be looking for a different job,” the teacher wrote. The letter also suggests that Laughlin is receiving compensation for consultancy work related to MCL. (Read the letter below.)

According to several RSU 18 community members interviewed for this story, MCL is a brainchild of Assistant Superintendent Linda F. Laughlin.

In an interview with The Maine Wire, Laughlin disputed the anonymous allegations. Laughlin said MCL is not a project of her own creation, but is instead a district-wide vision of education reform owned by a number of stakeholders.

“We’ve been working over the past four years to transform our system of learning,” said Laughlin. “There are folks making inaccurate assumptions and statements about MCL,” she said.

One of the most glaringly inaccurate statements, said Laughlin, is that students graduating from an MCL high school will not have a standard grade point average (GPA) to share with colleges and will thus be placed at a disadvantage.

She said RSU 18 administrators are working with independent consultants and a number of colleges to ensure that students are not disadvantaged when applying to college. This process, she said, would involve a yet undefined way of translating performance under MCL into a traditional GPA for RSU 18’s high school students.

As for the teachers’ fear of retribution should they voice opposition to MCL, Laughlin said she has not threatened any teachers. “I have communicated to staff that we have a vision for the district,” she said.

Laughlin acknowledged that a few teachers have left the district or retired early because of the implementation of MCL, but said many teachers are supportive of the MCL vision.

Laughlin serves as co-chair of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, a group of administrators dedicated to sharing MCL best practices with other schools. She also teaches a course at the University of Maine in Farmington on MCL. While the former position is voluntary, the latter is paid, meaning Laughlin receives compensation for teaching future teachers how to teach under the system she helped implement.

Read the teachers’ letters below:

S.E. Robinson
Maine Wire Reporter


About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently the executive producer of the Kirk Minihane Show. Follow him on Twitter @BigSteve207.

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