Maine Schools in Focus: No Longer Flying Solo—The Transformation of Teaching in Maine Schools

Editor: Gordon Donaldson

Maine’s one-room schoolhouse heritage disappeared with the advent of roads, buses, and consolidated schools. But the image of that past teacher lives on—that teacher who “did it all” for her students. The last 35 years have witnessed the greatest transformation in this respect: teaching is now performed by an array of professionals who are expected to collaborate across specialties to address children’s needs. In short, our classroom teachers are no longer flying solo.

As this transformation occurred, more instructional and specialized personnel were hired into Maine schools. Between 1980 and 2010:

  • 2,014 teachers were added to Maine’s teaching force (measured in full-time equivalents or FTEs)
  • The number of classroom teachers grew by 12.4 percent (FTEs)
  • The number of special education teachers grew by 82 percent (FTEs)
  • In addition, the number of teacher aides/assistants/educational technicians grew by 675 percent

These increases are all the more remarkable in light of the 16.4 percent drop in enrollment over this 30-year period. In earlier eras, the number of teachers tended to mirror fluctuations in enrollment; statewide average pupil/teacher ratios ranged between 23 and 26 prior to 1970. Since then, they have dropped to 12.

Why? A major contributing factor is our full-court press for achievement. Thirty years of education reform have raised parental and public expectations that “every child will reach world-class learning standards.” Districts have invested in an expanding array of instructors to address subgroups of students with unique talents and learning challenges. In fact, we have traded classroom teachers for ed techs and specialists: We employed fewer classroom teachers in 2015 than we did in 2000 and 2010. But we now count a record-high 5,860 ed techs and 3,315 “instructional specialists” – positions that were not documented (and may not have existed) in 2000.

Maine is swapping out “generalist” classroom teachers for staff in special education, gifted and talented, migrant education, Title I, after-school and summer programming and alternative education. As parents and educators seek ways to engage and teach children underserved by the mainstream program, districts have hired math and literacy specialists or interventionists and teacher coaches to address needs, accelerate learning, and improve teaching. Dropping enrollments have opened up space in many schools for these new staff.

Maine is not unique in this respect. Nationally, spending on classroom teaching positions is declining while resources for specialized services, often recorded under “other instruction,” “student and staff support,” and “special education,” are growing faster than most other cost centers.

What have our children gained from more specialized staff and programs? It’s a difficult question to answer definitively. Schools can point to individual cases and subgroups of students whose performance gains are well documented through local assessments. Greater parent engagement has generated more frequent—and more accurate—reporting on student learning. Changes in statewide testing procedures, however, make it difficult to measure any longterm impacts of this newly diversified instructional cadre.

Some worry that the multiplication of programs and staff threatens the continuity and coordination of each child’s learning—that schooling is too much about “programs” and not about “each child.” Are there so many “pull-outs” and “special programs” that keeping track of each child’s learning itself has become too time-consuming? Who is the “case manager” for each child’s experience? It’s a question that we’ve always asked about our high schools but now are asking about our intermediate and primary schools.

This changing landscape leaves educators, citizens, and policy makers with three significant challenges:

1. How can we ensure the coordination of learning experiences for our children, so they add up to continuous growth for each child? How do teachers who share students regularly “team up” to ensure high-quality learning and development? How are parents regularly kept in the loop?

2. Scheduling, supporting, and coordinating these diversified staffs has changed the work of principals, curriculum coordinators, special education directors, and superintendents. In a truly responsive school, services to children flex constantly to meet the evolving goals and performance of each student. How do our leaders ensure this level of responsiveness?

3. How are we evaluating the effectiveness of these programs and specialized staff? What, specifically, is the value-added by, for example, our math interventionists, our ed techs, our after-school teachers, our occupational therapists, our social workers, and our gifted-and-talented teachers? How does that measure up against the contributions of our classroom teachers?

Sources: MDOE (; National Center for Educational Statistics (; Donaldson, From Schoolhouse to Schooling System. (Maineauthorspublishing; 2014)


Maine Schools in Focus is intended to share information that stimulates thinking, planning, and action to fulfill the mission of Maine’s preK-12 schools. Submissions must present ideas and data relevant to schooling in Maine and pose questions and suggest avenues for policy and action. They must be limited to 650 words.

Contact: Gordon Donaldson at