Commissioner Stephen Bowen’s remarks at July 25 news conference

The following are Commissioner Stephen Bowen’s remarks from today’s joint news conference with Gov. Paul LePage. Please see the fact sheet for more information about the Harvard study.

Good afternoon, and thank you, Governor, for your attention to this important report and for your commitment to the education of Maine’s kids.

I will echo the Governor’s sentiments that the findings of this report are extraordinarily disappointing. I will say that it does not come as that much of a surprise. The NAEP test data we received last fall – you see some of it here – showed Maine losing ground over the past few years. What we learned from this study is the extent to which other states have moved aggressively to improve student outcomes.  In some areas, like fourth grade reading, we are actually further behind where we were years ago, in other areas we are simply standing still while other states have caught up and passed us.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been in schools all across Maine where there are innovative ideas and new approaches being undertaken and great work is happening. The governor and I recently did an event connected to the Bridge Year project in the Bangor area, which is a model of innovation that puts students first. I have a meeting next week with folks from Deer Isle to talk about the remarkable turnaround that school has seen in its graduation rates. So good things are happening, and that is important to note.

But our failure to keep pace with states making real growth in student achievement cannot continue to be brushed aside.

Earlier this year the Department released a 35-page strategic plan with more than 50 proposed action steps, nearly all of which are some stage of completion. We believe this comprehensive plan will result in better student outcomes, we are carefully tracking our progress on in the many action steps outlined in the plan, and will soon release an update on how we’re doing.

The release of this Harvard report, however, means that the time has come for us to focus like a laser on a small handful of core actions and core priorities that we believe will mean real progress on student outcomes. These efforts, aligned with the core priority areas of our strategic plan and based on the proven reforms of the high-performing school systems identified in this report, need to be our central focus moving forward.

So what are these core focus areas?

  • Accountability
  • Best Practices
  • Choice

1. Accountability. The Harvard study makes very few claims about why some states have so significantly outperformed others, but it does state that there is “some hint that those parts of the United States that took school reform the most seriously – Florida and North Carolina, for example – have shown stronger rates of improvement, while states that have steadfastly resisted many school reforms (Iowa and Wisconsin, for instance) are among the nation’s test-score laggards.”

One of the areas where these reform-minded states made real headway in recent years is in accountability – in finding out how schools are doing, identifying those that are truly struggling to meet the needs of students, and then doing something about it.

In states that have seen significant gains, like Florida, the performance of schools is determined through multiple measures, a type of report card is developed for each school with letter grades assigned to each, and for schools that are struggling, the state steps in, requires that improvement plans be put in place, and works with school and district leaders to get schools turned around. As a result, the number of struggling schools in Florida has dropped significantly and today, the Harvard study finds Florida to be one of the highest performing states in the nation in terms of achievement growth.

Right now, we are at work – we have teams of people on this including teachers, superintendents, principals, business people, and others – designing a new accountability system for Maine, which we intend to implement under a federal waiver. We do not have the new system fully designed at this point, but our intent is to follow the lead of states like Florida and design a system that clearly measures how well schools are doing and provides targeted assistance to those schools that are struggling. That plan will be coming together in the next few weeks.

2. Best Practices, especially in areas like literacy.  One of the benefits of reports like this is that they not only show us where we need to improve, they show us the states and nations to look to for what works.

Upon taking office, the governor and I poured through all kinds of reports on high performing systems, and that is what led us to focus on issues like educator effectiveness in this past legislative session.

One of the areas we know we need to improve is reading, and in literacy more broadly, which is an area where Maine has lost ground. Just today, the Maine Children’s Alliance issued its annual KIDS COUNT data book. In their release, they point to education as an area of concern, citing dropping test scores.

And they should!

NAEP test data reveals that the percentage of our students who are proficient in reading today is lower than it was 20 years ago.  Let me say that again. In 1992, 36 percent of our fourth graders rated proficient or above in the NAEP reading test. Last year it was 32 percent. In eighth grade, the story is much the same. In 1998, 42 percent of Maine eighth graders were proficient in Reading according to NAEP, last year 38 percent were. In both cases, our proficiency levels have been going down, while national averages have been going up, and in some states (the ones Harvard identified), up dramatically. In Massachusetts, for instance, the percentage of fourth graders proficient in reading rose from 36 percent in 1992 – exactly where Maine was at that time – to 51 percent last year. This still isn’t great – barely half – but it is the complete opposite direction than the direction Maine is going.

What are we doing about it? For more than a year, a team of experts from across the state has been working to develop a comprehensive plan to expand literacy education in Maine by building on proven best practices.  We will release that plan in a few weeks and I urge school and community leaders across Maine to join us in an unprecedented effort to expand literacy and learning across our state.

We know there are other innovative and promising approaches being tried out there – what we might term “next practices” – and we want to support districts that are being bold and creative, that are not satisfied with the status quo way of doing things. We passed an innovative schools bill last year to encourage new thinking, we created a center for best practices that will share what districts are doing, and we really want to see districts trying new approaches and doing what works for kids.

3. Choice.  One of the common features of a number of the states identified in the Harvard study as having made significant gains is that they work to provide expanded learning options to students. Florida and Louisiana have been long-time leaders in providing school choice options, Delaware allows almost exactly the kind of open-enrollment school choice program we proposed in the last legislative session, and even Massachusetts is a school choice leader, with more than 70 public charter schools.

If we are going to reach all kids, we need to give all kids as many learning options as possible.

Today, we have a number of initiatives underway to expand learning options.

  • The task force on early college opportunities that was created by an Executive Order is looking at ways to take models like the Bangor-area Bridge Year program to scale. Bridge Year is a program in which students will earn both a high school degree and a community college degree in five years. We will come to the next legislature with a plan to replicate these models eleswhere.
  • A second Executive Order directed us to develop a plan to expand digital learning, we are partnering with national leaders in digital learning, including former governor Jeb Bush of Florida who lead that state’s dramatic turnaround. The result will be more choices in courses for students, especially in smaller, more rural schools.
  • As I said earlier, a number of school systems across Maine are doing pioneering work on student-centered learning, developing ways to provide students with more voice and more choices in their learning, we are working with those districts and sharing what they have come up with – a promising new model, led by innovative school districts, that is putting the student at the center.
  • Lastly, we will soon be working to develop a comprehensive school choice model for Maine, working with stakeholders and school choice supporters, and working with national leaders in the choice movement, such as the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

As the governor has said from the start, everything we do has to be driven  by one concern only – is what we are doing on our schools in the best interest of the student? Building a system that meets the needs of all children by providing them with as many options and avenues for achievement as possible must be a core priority.

One last action step we’re taking, and this is internal to the Department:

One of the high performing states on the list in New Jersey, and one of the things New Jersey did under my second favorite governor, Governor Christie, is create a position of Chief Academic Officer, one person in the department to coordinate and oversee all the programs the Department has that relate to teaching and learning and academic achievement. I met with Chris Cerf, the commissioner from New Jersey at a conference last week, he just forwarded along to me yesterday the job description they used for that position in New Jersey. I talked with my team this morning and very soon you will see a job posting for the Maine Department of Education for a Chief Academic Officer to work with the governor, me, our whole team at the Department and all the educators we’re here to serve and support to make sure everything we do there is designed to meet the needs of our kids and get them to excel. We are going to focus like never before on making this system work for our kids.

So, three key areas:

  • A new accountability system built to mirror those found in states such as Florida, that are making significant gains;
  • Best Practices in education, especially with regard to literacy; and
  • Expanded choices for students – in where and how they do school.

These efforts will be our core focus as we head into the fall and winter, we will be working with national experts from high-performing states on these initiatives, and we will be bringing a number of proposals to the legislature next session that we believe will get Maine’s school headed in the right direction.

Resources and more information

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