Welcome news and a special opportunity

Author icon: Head shot of Commissioner Stephen BowenWe’ve had a flurry of activity here at the Department of Education ever since the Obama administration last week released guidelines for states interested in securing waivers from certain provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

For nearly 10 years, that federal law has trapped Maine’s schools in a system that emphasizes test preparation at the expense of genuine learning, test results at the expense of more honest measures of students’ academic growth, and instruction in math and reading at the expense of the broader curriculum our students need to develop the skills colleges and employers will demand.

That’s why this news about relief from No Child Left Behind is promising. It’s an opportunity for us to move beyond the unrealistic targets of adequate yearly progress and devote our attention to a host of promising improvements already underway in our schools:

  • We’re implementing the rigorous Common Core state standards for math and English language arts – standards that clearly lay out what students need to know and be able to do to be prepared for college and careers;
  • We have plans to transition to a new generation of modern, computer-based assessments that are aligned with those rigorous standards, test higher-order skills and offer teachers the chance to make assessment useful – using it as a way to identify areas where students need help and to adjust instruction accordingly;
  • We’re laying the groundwork for an accountability system that recognizes our educators when they help students grow, provides them with constructive feedback when improvement is needed and allows for a wide variety of improvement strategies – rather than a one-size-fits-all approach; and
  • We have schools that are devising an array of model teacher and administrator evaluations that school districts can use – evaluations that provide helpful feedback to the professionals in our schools so they can continue to grow in their jobs.

We’ve made strides in most of those areas, and that’s where federal officials are directing their attention. That’s why Maine is in a strong position to write a waiver application that will pass muster.

Still, many questions remain about what a new accountability system for our schools will look like.

How will we determine which schools to recognize for outstanding achievement and which schools to target for support? Which strategies will we use to help those schools that need improvement? Which principles and measures will school districts use to set up constructive performance evaluations for their staff?

We’re aiming to submit our waiver application by mid-February. That means we have four-and-a-half months to answer those questions and many more. We have four-and-a-half months to decide what our state’s schools will do in the absence of Adequate Yearly Progress targets and Continuous Improvement Priority Status monikers.

Amid all the questions, there are a few certainties.

First, we have piles of work ahead of us. But that work won’t be done in isolation. As important decisions are made, the Department of Education will take deliberate steps to involve educators from across the state and the professional associations that represent them.

Second, this isn’t the end of accountability. Regardless of how we ultimately do it, schools will still need to be transparent about the performance of their students. And they’ll still be expected to make changes when that performance needs improvement. Our hope, though, is that the information available to schools and to the public will be more helpful, more honest and more useful than what’s available now. And we hope that a larger menu of improvement options will be available to our schools.

Third, this is an unprecedented opportunity. The U.S. Congress has, for now, failed to provide us with the overhaul of No Child Left Behind that we desperately need. In the face of inaction, the federal government has essentially granted the states a license to overhaul.

Let’s use this opportunity to work toward the education system we know we need.

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2 thoughts on “Welcome news and a special opportunity

  1. First, I hope you consider involving some retired, highly qualified, highly experienced, highly successful, and tech-enabled educators (such as myself, but I am just one of many) in your response to the waiver opportunity. What “we know we need” will undoubtedly have some elements of what has been eliminated in the last 10 years, as well as elements of what has been improved in the last 10 years. It might be helpful to have some insight from clear eyes that are not vested in a school, job, or institution – but in the idea of education for the children of Maine.
    Second, I find your message about accountability to be unclear. Are you addressing primarily the performance of teachers, the performance of students, or the performance of schools? It is important, I feel, that you, as Commissioner, articulate the nature of the interaction between these elements. Any approach to the concept of accountability measurement must stand on firm philosophical and pedogogical ground. This is more important than data.

    1. Elizabeth: Thanks for your comment. We will be involving many people in the development of a waiver application, both formally and informally – in fact, we’re required to by the waiver guidelines.

      We’re still in the very early stages here, and will be working quickly to fully review all the guidance and form an approach and a plan. The plan we develop must – both because it’s required and because it makes sense – address student, teacher, and school accountability. Also, you might find helpful a webinar we conducted with superintendents earlier this week in which a number of questions about the waiver were answered. You can find it here: http://www.maine.gov/education/nclb/accountability.html

      Stay tuned for opportunities to participate in the process.

      Rachelle Tome, ESEA Federal Programs Director, Maine DOE

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