Bills propose standards-based diploma

The Maine Legislature’s Education Committee held public hearings May 6 on bills that address standards-based high school diplomas, a strategic plan for education in Maine, a statewide model curriculum and innovative school zones.

Representatives from the Department of Education, including Commissioner Stephen Bowen, offered the following testimony to the legislative panel:

L.D. 1422, An Act to Prepare Maine People for the Future Economy

Maine DOE position: In Support, Commissioner Bowen
View the bill text.

Senator Langley, Representative Richardson, and Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs:

My name is Stephen Bowen, and I am here today representing the Department in support of L.D. 1422 An Act To Prepare Maine People for the Future Economy, though the Department would strongly encourage the Committee to carry the bill over until the next legislative session for reasons I’ll discuss in a moment.

As the Committee is aware, I have had the honor of serving as Commissioner of Education for almost exactly two months, and during that time I have traveled extensively and have spoken with countless teachers and school administrators about how we can make Maine’s schools better.  Invariably, one of the responses I hear no matter where I go is that we as a State need to develop a long term plan for public education.  Rather than continually lurch from one reform idea to another, we need to set common goals, establish benchmarks, put needed policies and procedures in place, and then maintain a focused effort over a number of years, staying on the course that we have laid out.

L.D. 1422 sets the State on a course to do just that.  The legislation before you establishes as the policy of the State that “the education system must prepare all of the people of the State for success in college, career, citizenship and life.”  The bill goes on to establish a series of specific policy goals and indicators related to student achievement and outcomes, and establishes measurable benchmarks and a timeline for the achievement of these goals.

The goals the legislation would establish for Maine are laudable ones, related to improving early childhood programming, increasing high school and college completion rates, and ensuring that students are adequately prepared for college and careers.  The bill would also move Maine, at long last, to a standards-based high school diploma, and make other policy changes to advance the goals it lays out.

As ambitious and overdue as the bill is, though, and as laudable as the goals it establishes are, the Department would respectfully ask the Committee for the time to develop an even more comprehensive strategic plan addressing other factors critical to the academic success of our students, such as teacher and administrator effectiveness, learning technology implementation, integration of assessment and data systems, and the prudent and efficient investment of education spending.

L.D. 1422, in fact, outlines eight “core priorities” for Maine’s education system, including “high quality early care”; “high standards and personalized learning”; “effective, knowledgeable and well-trained teachers”; “strong and focused school, community and state leadership”; and so forth. These are all worthy goals for our educational system. What we propose to do is to take these policy priorities and others like them, and develop objectives, benchmarks, and implementation strategies for each, in order to produce what educators across Maine have told me we need – a detailed roadmap for school improvement and reform.

We have seen from the example of states such as Delaware, a round one Race to the Top winner, that states which adopt comprehensive roadmaps for reform are able to more strategically align resources with overall goals related to improving student outcomes.  That is precisely what we intend to do, and would therefore encourage the Committee to hold this bill over until the next legislative session, at which time we will return to the Committee with a statewide strategic plan developed in cooperation with stakeholders from across Maine, including our partners in Maine’s higher education community.  Discussions around the development of such a plan are, in fact, already underway.

L.D. 1422, it is important to point out, does contain a couple of other provisions that the Committee may want to consider implementing immediately, namely PART C, Sections C-1 and C-2.  That section of the bill proposes to institute a performance-based high school diploma, for instance, and the Department wholeheartedly supports this long-overdue reform.  The bill also calls for the Department to work with our education partners to develop and deploy a common pre-kindergarten screening tool, and the Department is happy to undertake this work as well.

Were the Committee interested in moving these pieces forward, our suggestion would be to use another legislative vehicle, L.D. 949, to do so, and carry this bill over to the next session, so that it can serve as the legislative vehicle for the State strategic plan for education that we seek to develop.

For these reasons, the Department of Education is in support of L.D. 1422 An Act To Prepare Maine People for the Future Economy.  I thank the Committee for its time and attention.  I am happy to answer any questions the Committee may have, and will be available for work sessions on this bill.

L.D. 949, An Act to Update Maine’s High School Graduation Requirements

Maine DOE position: In Support, Wanda Monthey, policy director
View the bill text.

Senator Langley, Representative Richardson, and Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs:

My name is Wanda Monthey, and I am here today representing the Department in support of L.D. 949 An Act to Update Maine’s High School Graduation Requirements with a recommended amendment.

This is a concept bill and we are supporting the concepts that the bill addresses.  However, before I address the sections of the bill, the Department recommends that as Commissioner Bowen recommends in his testimony on L.D. 1422, that PART C, Sec. C-1 and C-2 from L.D. 1422 be enacted as part of this bill in number three (3) of L.D. 949.   PART C outlines a timeline for implementing a system of graduation based on standards.  It also directs the Department to adopt rules that require school administrative units to award high school diplomas based on standards included in rule.  Chapter 127:  Instructional Program, Assessment and Diploma Requirements is a major substantive rule that will require us to provisionally adopt by December and then we will need to bring it back to you when you meet again next winter.  The timeline outlined in this rule will give clear direction to the education community and the message that we are committed to moving forward to prepare students so that each one graduate from high school with a quality and equal diploma.  There is more detail in the Commissioner’s testimony on L.D. 1422.

With regard to the specific concept proposals in this bill, for the past few years, the Department has presented stakeholders’ groups reports and recommendations for improving the graduation requirements in order that students graduate meeting the Maine’s Learning Results, or standards, in all content areas.  L.D. 949 is a concept that moves this work forward.

The requirement that students demonstrate proficiency in all eight content areas is a goal that was established several years ago but not realized in the timeline outlined in rule.  Not all students learn in the same way and the previous passage of multiple pathways legislation allows students to demonstrate achievement of the standards in different and more relevant settings; not just in traditional credit bearing classes in the content areas.  If students have met the standards prior to the 12th grade, it may mean that they will not take a fourth year of mathematics or English but could take other courses that are rigorous and more relevant to their post-secondary plans.  While any course or experience will continue to use the skills and knowledge in English; that is not always in mathematics because of the way it has been traditionally taught.  However, our work with Math in Career and Technical Education (CTE) is connecting math teachers and CTE teachers to address the math standards within industry based standards for students in more relevant settings.

The inclusion of the Guiding Principles is also important.  In many cases, using the existing standards the performances can demonstrate achievement of both the standards and the Guiding Principles.  We declare in statute that we believe all students must leave our school system with these skills and knowledge which are critical for success in life.  Yet the implementation and measurement across the State is sporadic at best.  These principles are not measured in isolation of each other or of the content but high quality tasks and units with assessments can be developed that integrate multiple standards to demonstrate achievement of the content standards as well as the principles.  There are examples already both in the State and across state lines.  The Partnership for Next Generation Learning is also working on this, so we will be able to develop these assessments with others.

We are strongly in support of moving to a standards based/ performance based/competency system for earning a diploma.  The State adopted the Learning Results in 1997 with the intent that any student graduating from Maine schools would have acquired the skills and knowledge included in those standards.  That has not been fully realized.  Some students continue to be passed though school without evidence that they have achieved the standards.  These are the standards that we have said are critical for success as adults.  Many districts in the state have been working on implementing a standards/performance/ competency based system.  It has not been one model but different ones that “fit” the school system.  It is also very important that students be given multiple opportunities to demonstrate the standards.  Depth of knowledge is also important to include so there is not just a “check-off” of isolated skills that reference the standards.  A few years ago, the Department presented ideas to demonstrate achievement of the content standards with some form of portfolio (the arts,  a wellness plan) and culminating assessment tasks (scientific or technological design, public policy papers).  These pieces of work cut across specific areas and allowed students to demonstrate achievement of the standards at the standards level vs. performance indicators that referenced the standards and support the skills and knowledge of the standards.  The stakeholder’s work group on establishing a diploma met for two years and struggled with the different options of earning that diploma with three models; all credits, all standards, or a combination.

The Department is committed to providing rubrics that will be used to measure student achievement of the standards.  For content areas where we are working with other states to develop new standards, those rubrics will need to be developed with the other states.  Currently, there are districts and national organizations that have or are developing rubrics tied to the standards.  As we move forward we will work with those districts to ensure that all measures of student achievement are of the same quality and level of expectation statewide.  It will be critical to ensure that the rubrics are manageable and will not result in being overwhelming to both students and teachers.  It is also important that the rubrics that are developed are aligned with the rubrics of the assessments so that the writing assessment rubric, etc. is the same as the one used in schools.

We also need to review the standards to ensure that the standards for which the students will be held accountable are both manageable, not an overwhelming number, and that the standards can be met in different settings and programs.  There are many, many performance indicators that support the standards but through this bill.  We will use the standards as the measure for graduation.  Reporting to parents on the progress of students is critical to ensure full participation in the education of students.  The Maine Course Pathways system will actually allow parent and student to work together to design a path that the student may take in high school to achieve the standards and subsequent reporting of achievement.  This transparency will create parent support and involvement in their child’s education.

One of the content areas that we have traditionally had concerns about is World Languages.  I am attaching the plan that we have drafted to provide second language (or more) to all students.  We are fortunate that there is a national association of “foreign” language teachers that is made up of both K-12 and post-secondary educators that have worked for years on determining proficiency in languages.

The opportunity for students to graduate early or continue beyond the four years in high school provides all students with the opportunity to leave demonstrating all of the standards.  The opportunity to meet the standards through multiple pathways, we believe, will help students achieve the standards by demonstration and not seat time in courses that are not meeting their needs.  It will also set the stage for innovative practices such as the five year program that the Governor is committed to developing.

We are very committed to having students graduate from high school prepared for post-secondary education, careers and citizenship.  While we realize that our staff will be working very hard and have concerns about our capacity to do all of the work in this bill, we do have multiple opportunities to work with other states.  We are committed to moving the education system in Maine to a standards/performance/competency based system.  Only in this way, can we be assured, and assure others, that our students are competent in all of the content areas when they leave high school.

The Department feels that, even though there is considerable work in progress, it is important that the Committee make a policy statement in statute that reinforces the policy and the importance of these endeavors.

For these reasons the Department of Education is supporting L.D. 949 An Act To Update Maine’s High School Graduation Requirements and will work diligently to achieve the components.  I would be happy to answer any questions the Committee may have, and we will be available for work sessions on this bill.

L.D. 959, Resolve, Directing the Department of Education to Provide Curriculum Consistency in Maine Public Schools

Maine DOE position: Neither For Nor Against, Wanda Monthey
View the bill text.

Senator Langley, Representative Richardson, and Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs:

My name is Wanda Monthey, and I am here today representing the Department speaking neither for nor against L.D. 959 Resolve, Directing the Department of Education To Provide Curriculum Consistency in Maine Public Schools.

L.D. 959 is an excellent idea that could meet the needs of many school administrative units but the Department’s capacity to accomplish this, at the level required by the bill, within the current budget and staffing is not possible.  We have some work underway that will provide varying degrees of curriculum resources requested in this Resolve.  We have been working across districts and within some districts to develop standards based curricula.  The Maine Course Pathways will provide a model for courses and pathways at the high school level.

Staff members of the Department are working with local schools, districts, and across the country to develop common resources in all the content areas.  The emergence of resources related to the Common Core is incredible.  States are working across state lines to share resources, develop common frameworks and materials that could lead to a scope and sequence being developed for all states to share.  Local schools are developing curriculum based on the Common Core State Standards.  Those districts that have used traditional textbooks will find new editions aligned with the Common Core very soon.

In other content areas, states are finding that coming together to develop common standards and/or assessments means that not only is there consistency in content but the costs of developing resources is reduced through sharing.

The Maine Course Pathways at the high school includes developing sample syllabi in all of the content areas that all high schools could use.  The work by six high schools and five Career and Technical Education (CTE) centers to design syllabi and show pathways through high school where students can meet all of the content standards provides a model for the high school curriculum in all content areas.  In a recent New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) visit, one high school received a commendation for its curriculum that was made up of the syllabi for every course.  Not only does this provide a curriculum it also provides a planning tool for students and parents.

So while we would like to do this and believe it is a worthy effort, our capacity to do the actual development of model curriculum does not exist.  We do believe it is our role to provide access to quality curriculum through the sharing of public resources, and we do that as we describe above.  If the Committee goes forward with a bill, the Department would suggest a resolve that is a policy statement supporting the development of model curriculum and encouraging the Department to work with local, state and national efforts to provide model curricula to schools in Maine.

For these reasons, the Department of Education is neither for nor against L.D. 959 Resolve, Directing the Department of Education To Provide Curriculum Consistency in Maine Public Schools.  I would be happy to answer any questions the Committee may have, and I will be available for work sessions on this bill.

L.D. 1188, An Act to Achieve Maine’s High School Graduation Goal

Maine DOE position: Neither For Nor Against, Deputy Commissioner Jim Rier
View the bill text.

Senator Langley, Representative Richardson, and Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs:

My name is Jim Rier, and I am here today representing the Department of Education speaking neither for nor against L.D. 1188 An Act To Achieve Maine’s High School Graduation Goal (EMERGENCY).

L.D.1188 establishes a program for at risk students with Commissioner authority to grant up to $500,000 to a qualifying school administrative unit.  While the Department supports the need for more attention and support for at risk students, this bill as written does not provide a reliable funding source.  The program must be funded from within existing resources specifically any portion of the amount available for state agency client reimbursements to local schools, a component of General Purpose Aid (GPA), remaining at the end of a fiscal year.  Currently any funds remaining at the end of a fiscal year carry into the following fiscal year to support GPA.  In order for the at risk program to be successful a specific amount should be allocated within GPA to support the initiative.

For these reasons, the Department of Education is neither for nor against L.D.1188 An Act To Achieve Maine’s High School Graduation Goal (EMERGENCY).  I will be pleased to answer any questions the Committee may have, and I will be available for work sessions on this bill.

L.D. 1488, An Act to Create Innovative Public School Zones and Innovative Public School Districts

Maine DOE position: In Support, Wanda Monthey
View the bill text.

Senator Langley, Representative Richardson, and Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs:

My name is Wanda Monthey, and I am here today representing the Department in support of L.D. 1488 An Act To Create Innovative Public School Zones and Innovative Public School Districts.

The Department supports L.D. 1488 because it provides an opportunity for school districts to work to create innovative systems that will improve opportunities and success for all students. L.D. 1488 is a comprehensive look at all components of a school system.  It will allow school administrative units to design educational programs in their districts to meet the needs of their students.  The bill gives local school boards the opportunity to look at the needs of the district and the community and to design programs for students who could benefit from practices and strategies that result in greater success and achievement.  The safe guards are in place to ensure that the innovative school(s) demonstrate(s) results when given autonomy.  Students learn at different rates and times and if schools could be established that meet their needs and increase achievement, the administration is committed to their success.

As you heard on Monday, Maine is one of seven states that are part of a lab network for next generation learning.  With Gray- New Gloucester, we are working to identify practices and strategies that will create new learning environments or enhance current, successful environments to prepare students for the world we live in today and tomorrow.  This involves looking at policies that may stand in the way of student success at both the state and local levels.  Many of the practices we are looking at are addressed in this bill and will provide districts with the freedom to create schools that will inform local and state policy.  Moving to competency based systems, new accountability systems, and new data systems will move us forward in the 21st century.

We are very committed to having students graduate from high school prepared for post-secondary education, careers and citizenship.  Providing creative school districts with the ability to design effective teaching and learning systems will provide all of us with evidence of effective practices that can be adopted or adapted in other locations.

For these reasons, the Department supports L.D. 1488 An Act To Create Innovative Public School Zones and Innovative Public School Districts.  I would be happy to answer any questions the Committee may have, and we will be available for work sessions on this bill.