Challenging times, and a path forward

Author icon: Head shot of Commissioner Stephen Bowen

Below are the remarks I delivered to curriculum leaders, superintendents and school board members at separate conferences last week.

I want to begin with a thank you to all of you for your hard work and dedication and for everything you do to make our schools better.

Everywhere I’ve gone since taking this job – all the schools I’ve visited – I’ve seen tremendous dedication from our educators and school leaders, including the many board members I’ve met.

You all, first and foremost, want to do the right thing for kids – and for that I thank you.

I don’t need to tell you that this is an enormously challenging time for school leaders.

We confront a handful of major challenges that, while they will test us, will also, I think, ultimately lead us to do transformative things in our schools. Specifically, I want to talk about three major challenges that we confront.

Challenge 1: Our legacy system isn’t getting the job done

The first is that when you measure the success of our schools by the traditional means by which we measure it – test scores, graduation rates, and so forth – we don’t seem to be moving the needle.  Test scores are essentially flat, graduation rates may be up a little, but have gained slowly – too slowly for many folks who think that we should be improving at a faster pace.

Too many of our kids are dropping out, too many who do complete high school are not ready with the skills they need to then move on to college and careers, and, in fact, too many don’t go on to some kind of post-secondary education, and too many who do don’t complete any kind of post-secondary degree.

As if all this wasn’t enough, if you read Tony Wagner, who was here a few months ago, and authors like him, he argues that the kids we are graduating are not ready for life and work in the 21st century in a much broader sense. The employers he talks to say kids coming out of school today can’t think, don’t know how solve problems. They need step-by-step directions to do anything. They can’t communicate effectively. They don’t think creatively. They are risk-averse, because they come out of an educational system where making mistakes is a bad thing.  We give you lower grades for making mistakes.

So in short, the system we have isn’t getting the job done.

Challenge 2: Recent initiatives aren’t helping

The second challenge is that there is growing evidence that the steps that we have undertaken to address problem number one have, in some ways, made things worse. In an attempt to solve problem number one, we instituted high-stakes testing, for instance. We grade your schools based on how they do on standardized tests in basically two content areas, math and English language arts, with the occasional science test thrown in as well.

What schools have done in response is focus their efforts in those areas, and in a time of budget constraints, schools and districts have trimmed other programs to focus more effort and more resources on these few content areas. In community after community that I visited, parents and kids complain about cuts to art programs and industrial arts programs, music programs and foreign languages.

I was at Capital Area Technical Center earlier this week to celebrate the opening of a credit union branch – a credit union, right in the school. Kids will work there, they’ll learn job skills, they’ll learn personal finance. They’ll learn with real money! Sounds great, right?  The problem is that the CATC has room to take 100 more student than they have, but the sending high schools won’t send them.  The center director says the high schools tell him it is because of budget cuts that this terrific educational resource, right in the middle of Augusta, is underutilized. A hundred open slots over there.

In part because of decisions like this – taken because schools are responding to the incentives, responding to the pressure of the No Child Left Behind Act – we have a massive student engagement issue. A recent Indiana University study found that 67 percent of students report being bored in school every day.

And then there is the impact of all this on your educators.  I heard repeatedly this spring that the heightened focus on testing and accountability is driving people out of the profession. We have a massive loss rate. Of 100 prospective teachers who enter education schools nationally, only 70 become certified. Of those who actually enter the profession, a third leave in three years and 50 percent leave in the first five years. So to get 35 teachers – at whatever level of effectiveness – at the five year mark, then you need 100 coming in the door.  We can’t keep this up.

So we have a system that isn’t getting the job done and the actions we’ve taken so far, under No Child Left Behind, don’t seem to be working and may be making it worse. So what do we do?

We need to make some big changes. And this is not, in my mind, a case of nibbling around the edges. This isn’t a situation where we need to adopt a new math curriculum or buy a bunch of interactive whiteboards or something.

Challenge 3: Our legacy system was designed for a different century

The third challenge we have is that to build a system to meet the needs of all kids, we have to go to the core design elements of the system we have – to age-based grade levels, to Carnegie units and seat time, to bell schedules – to the basic architecture of the industrial-era factory model of schooling that we all inherited.

With all we’ve learned about child development, we still put kids together in cohorts by physical age when they are five years old and keep them in that cohort for the next dozen years?

We have kids come to school when we want them to – at 7 in the morning, to learn algebra, then go down the hall and do earth science, and then come into my old classroom and learn about the Ancient Greeks and then go next door to language arts and read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” None of it is connected to the rest of it.  Equal time allotments for each no matter how much time students need to learn it. What are we doing?

I’ve learned, by the way, that the basic architecture of this system was established, in part, more than 100 years ago by this group known as the Committee of Ten. This was a high-profile committee of educators, chaired by the president of Harvard, and they released a report in 1892 which outlined the basic design of public schools today.

Any of this sound familiar?

  • 8 years of elementary school followed by four years of high school.
  • In math, arithmetic was to be taught from ages 6 to 13, pre-algebra was to be addressed at about 7th grade, algebra itself was to begin at age 14, followed by geometry.
  • The three-year secondary science program was to begin with biology and earth science, then to chemistry, then to physics.

The committee’s report also declared that “every subject which is taught at all …should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil.” It likewise determined that each subject should be granted the same “equal time allotment” regardless of whether a student needed more or less time to learn it. This was done, in part, the committee wrote, to preserve the “dignity” of each academic subject. It was the subject matter to which teachers were to do homage, not the needs of students.

But then, the Committee of Ten, was trying to build a system of schools to meet a very different set of needs. It was thought at their time that only an “insignificant percentage” of high school graduates would go on to college, so the ideal school system should “be made for those children whose education is not to be pursued beyond the secondary school.”

Envisioning a new model of schooling for a new age

What we confront, therefore, almost 120 years later, as we try to use this same basic system to bring all children to a high level of achievement on rigorous standards, is fundamentally a design problem. The system we have was designed for a different time, with different needs.

So the great challenge before us is not to simply tweak the system we have, but to make something better – to build a new model for schooling for a new age.

How do we get there?

This summer we spent some time at the office thinking about how we can focus the work of the Department on a handful of things that will get us where we need to go. We came to organize our thinking around five core priorities, that, if we can keep our focus on them, will help us to help you move our schools into a new era.

The first of these is Effective Instructional Practices.

Priority 1: Effective instructional practices

The core of this entire enterprise is what happens between student and teacher that results in learning. All of us who have taught have seen that flash of understanding from a student. We construct this entire universe of public education for that moment when a student learns. That is the reason for the whole thing.

So what happens in the classroom is the key to the whole thing. Do we have rigorous standards, do we have curriculum aligned to those standards, do we have instructional practices that put the student at the center — that gives the student voice and choice — do we have modern, 21st century assessment tools, and robust data systems that help us tailor instruction to the needs of every child in real time?

Getting those pieces right — those things that happen in the classroom — is key.

None of these pieces will work, though, if we don’t have great teachers and leaders, which is the second priority.

Priority 2: Great teachers and leaders

Do we have common standards for teacher and leader effectiveness that speak to what our teachers and school leaders should know and be able to do?  Are our initial preparation and professional development programs aligned with these standards?  Do we have evaluation systems in place that provide teachers and leaders with constructive feedback, and that are also used to design and implement professional development offerings? Do we do enough to support teachers and leaders in their role as learners – supporting the work they do together to make their schools better.

One of the initiatives we’re working on, for instance, is developing an online community of practice where teachers, school leaders, curriculum coordinators and others can share best practices – share lesson plans, rubrics, curriculum materials and professional development opportunities.

The research is clear that great teachers and leaders are the key to high-performing educational systems. This has to be a top priority for us.

These great teacher and leaders though, can’t do their jobs if they remain locked into the factory-era structure of modern schools. That is why the third core priority is building multiple pathways for student achievement.

Priority 3: Multiple pathways for student achievement

At long last, can we move away from the assembly-line, age-based grade level system we’ve endured for generations, and move to a system where students move upon demonstration of mastery? We can. It is happening in schools right here in Maine, right now.

An entire cohort of schools has emerged that is moving a proficiency-based model forward. We will be doing some research into what this cohort of districts is doing, so we can share their work with the rest of the state.

Something that high performing systems do is establish gateways at certain critical points in a student’s academic career, such as the transition from elementary school to middle school. As we build a proficiency-based system, we need to ensure that students are fully prepared to move on ahead in their learning.

We also need more learning options for students. If we are building a system that puts the needs of students first, can we still cling to a model of schooling where the school the student attends is determined by the student’s street address? Can we continue to put administratively convenient limits in place that prevent students from attending Career and Technical Centers, or even, for older students, make use of the state’s Adult Ed system? Don’t we need to maximize the use of every educational resource at our disposal — no matter which side of the town line those resources fall on — if we’re going to meet the needs of all kids?

We also live in an age of anytime, anywhere learning, and if we are going to remain relevant in the lives of this generation of school children, we have to embrace new technologies such as digital learning. Schools can’t be the one place where students are not allowed access to digital learning opportunities.

Priority 4: A network of school and community supports

Around this system of schooling, we need to build a network of school and community supports – our fourth core priority.  We need to ensure that we have effective and efficient services for students with special needs, especially as we see the percent of students with multiple and severe learning issues on the rise. We need to better coordinate access to health and wellness programs, as again, we see a growing number of health issues affecting student learning.

In the world outside our schools, we need to engage families and communities as never before. In a student-centered, proficiency-based model, learning happens all the time. Students will demonstrate mastery of learning outcomes in projects done at home or in the community. In schools across Maine already, students demonstrate learning through community service projects and capstone projects that are interdisciplinary and that connect students to the world outside the school walls.

Employers, too, need to be engaged.  Students need exposure to the world of work, and need to see how what they know and are able to do can be applied in the workplace. Moving our state forward in the STEM fields, for instance, will require an unprecedented partnership with our STEM employers, as we look for ways to ensure that our graduates are ready for the careers of the 21st century.

The last core priority area we have been working on relates to how we pull all these pieces together to create a seamless, modern educational system.

Priority 5: A seamless, modern educational system

Can we work with our education partners from Pre-K to higher ed in order to create a seamless system of education that provides our students with access to learning opportunities they need at every level? Can we align all of our coursework to ensure that students can move directly from high school to postsecondary educational opportunities without the need for remedial courses?

With regard to funding, can we ensure that we have adequate and equitable financial resources behind each student and school?

Can we integrate technology in a comprehensive way, from the back office to the classroom and beyond, in order to prepare students for the technological age in which they will live and work?

Can we build an accountability system that clearly and honestly reports how our schools are doing, that provides policymakers with real-time data that they can use to make our schools better, and that drives professional development and support opportunities to help our schools improve?

We don’t need more reforms, we need transformation

So those are the core areas that we have been focused on, starting as close to the learner as we can, in the classroom, with the teacher, and working out from there.  That approach, we think, keeps us focused on the most important thing, which is the learner and his or her learning needs.

Now, I asked a lot of “can we” questions in this presentation. A lot of them.

But this isn’t really a question of “can we.” We have to do these things.

We’ve been spending a lot of time talking about the No Child Left Behind Act. The Obama administration has put forward a waiver opportunity, which we intend to pursue, and Congress is arguing about reauthorizing the controversial law as we speak.

Nobody likes NCLB, but NCLB, I think, was more useful to us than we think.

The premise of NCLB was that if we had high standards and if we held schools accountable for student achievement, they would get better. But the law also presumed something else – that schools and school teachers knew what to do to get better, they just weren’t doing it.  So what we would do under the law is test the kids, put the results in the newspaper and shame the schools into doing what they needed to do to improve.

What we found though, is that while schools and districts did see some improvement by focusing on standards and by looking carefully at their instructional practices, we’re not even close to getting all students to master the learning standards. NAEP scores, for instance, have barely budged, despite a decade of serious effort on the part of most people in the education business.

What we have come to find, I think, is that while standards and assessment are important, what we can do to actually improve student outcomes within the system as it is presently designed is limited. We’ll never reach all kids if we don’t replace age-based grade levels with something better.  We’ve tinkered around the edges for too long, we’ve driven teachers, administrators, parents and kids all crazy trying to test our way to a better educational system.

We don’t need reform, we need transformation in our schools. It is happening already, there is great work being done, we’re looking to help in any way we can, and I look forward to working with all of you to just that.

[Section headings added on 11/2/2011.]

7 thoughts on “Challenging times, and a path forward

  1. As an early childhood educator, I’m appalled by the push for the use of laptops and Ipads in the early grades. There is a severe problem going on with children in regards to their social/emotional development. Standards continue to trump developmentally appropriate practices and we are denying children natural development. Laptops and Ipads do not nurture problem solving and the negotiating skills young children need to develop in order to function in a world of people. We are creating a society of children technology dependent, not educated with an understanding of technology. Look at all the early childhood research. Look at leaders in the technology field who send their children to early childhood programs that don’t have a computer in the classroom. Look at the children…confident, happy learners stay in school. Children who get to play and learn and, oh my, even get extended recess times. Over 40% of elementary schools nationwide have done away with recess. We are going against natural human development and turning children into little adults and they are not ready for it. Children haven’t changed. Adults perceptions of them have. This is why children aren’t succeeding. It’s time to meet their needs at a developmentally appropriate pace, foster a love of learning early through inquiry based, hands on learning, and realize there’s a world of problem solvers we need out there who will have to deal with people, not computer screens.

  2. I am very excited about the vision for the future of Maine under the leadership of Commissioner Bowen. In Kittery, we are beginning this journey at Traip Academy as we have created an aggressive redesign plan to transform how students are educated to better prepare them for the future they face. During our community forums, I have often been asked. ” Will the DOE “allow” us to do the transformational changes we propose including internships, e-learning opportunities and credits for learning outside the school building?.” This report not only confirms that we are “allowed” but also that we are aligned and leading the way for the vision of education in Maine. Please consider taking a closer look at our plans for Traip Academy; we would greatly appreciate support from the educational community for our work.

  3. Commissioner Bowen has done a good job articulating the many challenges faced by our K-12 education system, but until it is accepted that schools and teachers are but one third of the problem of educational underachievement (the other two-thirds being the students themselves and their parents), we’ll not make significant progress. As an adult education teacher, I get to meet the “failures” of the K-12 system and hear their stories. Governor Le Page, no doubt, would not place the blame for his early educational struggles entirely on his teachers and local schools. Many of our students also face severe economic challenges, nutritional challenges, domestic upheaval and abuse. Harder to tackle, I know, but unless we acknowledge that we need to offer assistance earlier to some children in order to promote their healthly educational development, we’ll find the task of educating future K-12 students even more difficult.

  4. Absolutely – we need to connect teachers with all possible resources all over the globe. Our online Community of Practice should be a central, easy-to-find-and-use first stop for Maine educators. And it’s a real working space for Maine-specific needs – e.g., we’ll have Maine science teachers, higher ed, the Department’s own Anita Bernhardt, and others working together on how to implement the blueprint for Next Generation Science Standards in Maine.

    And yes to the 1:1 program – it will play an even more important role in the future, and will be a *part* of the answer to the money question. There are lots of things students can learn just as well (sometimes better) with an adaptive computer program, freeing up teachers to focus attention on individual student needs. Let’s take advantage of our teachers’ greatest strengths. With the same laptops and same teachers, we can do a lot more differentiation. That’s certainly not the whole answer – but if we can think creatively about how we use the resources we have, we can replicate some of the excellent practices already in use, as you say, throughout the state.

  5. Thank you for taking a stand for innovation. But also:
    1. Communities of Practice already exist, in all content areas and grade levels. Our teachers should learn how to connect and where to connect. I am not sure a Maine only venue is most relevant. I learn every day from teachers all over the globe. Isn’t that a goal?
    2. “We’ll never reach all kids if we don’t replace age-based grade levels with something better” Most ELA teachers are moving beyond this already – “something better” exists. It takes $$$ however. 1 kid : 1 book is an expensive model.
    3. Include the 1:1 program in your vision. It might change in tech, but it is good fit for Maine.

  6. A small group here in Dover-Foxcroft got together last night and watched the Finland Phenomenon ( and then spent another 90 minutes discussing our observations, reactions and planned “next steps” to support a broader community dialogue in our community with parents, educators, business leaders and community members. While there are differences between the demographics of Finland and Maine, there were some really sound concepts and practices that we can learn from and implement here. It is clear from the recent NAEP data and other information shared by the Commissioner last week that things have to change, and change soon and for the better. We support the DOE’s application for a NCLB waiver and look forward to thinking differently about how to better prepare our children to be great thinkers. Check out the DVD to promote a great discussion in your community! Our plan is to host a supper, invite parents, educators, administrators and the general community – watch the DVD together and then talk about how impressions and turn them into actions.

  7. These are excellent comments, and it is refreshing to have a Commissioner of Education who can articulate such a vision. However, many of us in education have known that systemic transformation is needed and have been frustrated by the lack of local leadership. We need strong leadership from the State to inspire strong local leadership in our superintendents. Engaged school boards, parents and communities will follow with strong leadership! We have the models and the know-how. It’s time to take action. Let’s do it!
    Catherine Ring, former Principal

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