Promising signs from Washington

Author icon: Head shot of Commissioner Stephen BowenI traveled to the nation’s capital earlier this week, and I liked what I heard.

It’s not every day one can travel to Washington, D.C., on official business and hear encouraging news about education policy changes coming down the pike.

But my recent meeting in the nation’s capital with state education chiefs from across the country defied expectations.

I think most who work in Maine schools would be similarly encouraged by what I heard: There’s a sense at the federal level that states – especially rural states like Maine – need flexibility when it comes to reforming our schools and measuring how well we’ve done it.

While in Washington, I learned that four dedicated senators and their staffers are hard at work determining what the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will look like when it comes up for reauthorization before Congress. We’re told that could happen as early as this fall.

What does that mean for Maine schools?

A rewritten Elementary and Secondary Education Act will replace the nine-year-old No Child Left Behind law that requires that schools everywhere make seemingly arbitrary increments of progress toward seemingly arbitrary levels of proficiency each year. (By 2014, that proficiency level will be 100 percent for all children in all schools.)

Those proficiency levels are determined largely by one measure: students’ performance on standardized tests that measure achievement in math and English language arts.

In Washington, my colleagues and I held a productive meeting with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. He was receptive to our message that the next landmark education bill needs to be flexible, while holding students and teachers to rigorous standards aimed at preparing our children for college and 21st-century careers.

There isn’t just one way to carry out reforms in our schools, and there isn’t just one way to measure how successful we are in doing that.

There’s more to our children’s education than teaching and testing math and language arts. The most important federal law that governs our schools needs to reflect that.

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