A short-term fix before a long-term solution

Author icon: Head shot of Commissioner Stephen BowenIt’s become increasingly apparent in recent months that we can’t count on the U.S. Congress to get its act together anytime soon and pass an education law that replaces the nearly decade-old No Child Left Behind Act.

That’s a shame, because in my visits to schools all over Maine this past spring, I heard frustration from teachers, school administrators, and parents — frustration with an accountability system that focuses on snapshot-in-time test scores rather than genuine learning and student growth.

In a recent op ed in the Lewiston Sun Journal, Lewiston schools Superintendent Bill Webster recommended a course of action that’s becoming more and more appealing as a new school year approaches.

Rather than wait for Congress to act, Superintendent Webster says, Maine should petition the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver from the most counter-productive aspects of the No Child Left Behind law.

I agree with Superintendent Webster that we need to move beyond a law that’s led to test-driven teaching and a narrowing of the curriculum to the math and English language arts skills that show up on standardized exams.

We need to abandon a system that penalizes teachers if their students don’t reach arbitrary testing benchmarks even when those students have demonstrated significant academic growth.

In the long term, I’m optimistic that Maine schools will move to a system that holds teachers, principals and schools accountable for their students’ academic growth in a fair and constructive way. Teachers should be rewarded if their students make noteworthy gains. Using a growth model for accountability can help us do that.

I’m also optimistic that, within the next few years, Maine schools will have access to a modern, 21st-century assessment instrument aligned to the rigorous Common Core academic standards. Those computer-based tests – under development right now by a consortium of states to which Maine belongs – will test skills other than rote memorization and will provide teachers with timely feedback on their students’ performance so they can adjust instruction accordingly.

In the long term, I’m even optimistic that the U.S. Congress will do the right thing and pass legislation that replaces No Child Left Behind with a new law that helps our schools to constantly improve the quality of education for our students.

But the immediate question is: What can we do right now to relieve Maine schools of the unrealistic and unnecessary burdens of No Child Left Behind?

Here at the Maine Department of Education, we’re assembling a team to begin devising a new accountability system that we can present to officials in Washington as an alternative to the one-size-fits all model required by No Child Left Behind. As we go about this effort, we are already working with our colleagues in state education departments across the country, sharing the experience and expertise of educators nationwide.

Once that system is developed, with input from teachers and school leaders here in Maine, we will follow Superintendent Webster’s sage advice and submit a waiver application to the U.S. Department of Education.

As Superintendent Webster says, a successful waiver request will have a positive and immediate impact on Maine students, allowing their teachers to devote their time to meeting the needs of every child.

That’s what the people of Maine have told me they want, and that is the important work we are undertaking.

One thought on “A short-term fix before a long-term solution

  1. I was pleased to see you mention 21st Century skills. It was a pleasure to examine Dr. Tony Wagner’s view on this topic. His work can and should pair with the Common Core to help for a system where students are engaged in learning in many times, at many places, and in many mediums. Thank you Commissioner Bowen.

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