Starting the serious work of crafting a new accountability system

Author icon: Head shot of Commissioner Stephen BowenWhen we took to the road in December, we wanted to hear what the public had to say about the system we use to hold our schools accountable. And hear from the public we did. We had more than 1,500 people respond to an online survey; several dozen turned out at public forums in Bangor, Portland and online.

We heard loud and clear that students, educators and families want a system that’s thoughtful, fair and constructive. We heard that people are tired of the system we have in place under the No Child Left Behind Act, which determines whether a school has made “adequate yearly progress” entirely on the basis of results from a standardized test given once a year that compares the performance of this year’s fourth graders to last year’s.

That’s why in the coming weeks, we at the Department of Education – along with educators from our schools and others – will begin the serious work of designing an accountability and improvement system that works for Maine.

This means crafting a system that considers more than one factor before labeling schools as “low-achieving” or “making progress.” It means designing a system that recognizes our educators when they help students grow and provides them with constructive feedback and professional development when improvement is needed, and allows schools a wide variety of improvement strategies.

Our thinking last fall, when the U.S Department of Education first put its ESEA flexibility package on the table, was to work though the winter to produce a full waiver application by the late February deadline. In the weeks that followed, though, it became clear that developing a proposal that met the state’s needs in such a short period of time was unworkable and not in the best interest of our state or our schools.

The feedback we received in December clearly indicated that Maine people wanted real change to our accountability system, not minor tweaks. And we anticipated, wrongly, as it turned out, that the U.S. Department of Education would quickly rule on the waiver applications of the first 11 states to apply, giving the remaining states some guidance on their thinking. Only last week did they announce the approval of all but one of the waiver applications that were submitted.

So instead of submitting a full-fledged flexibility request , we have sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education to inform officials there that we plan to get to work on a comprehensive accountability and improvement system with staying power. And while we design it, we’ll plan to hold our testing proficiency targets steady for a year, as allowed by federal guidelines.

In this work, we’re partnering with our neighbor, New Hampshire. The letter we sent to Washington today bears two state seals and the signatures of both states’ education commissioners, and signals our intent to work across state lines to develop accountability and support systems that are in line with our shared vision of a learner-centered educational system.

We’ll soon announce the formation of a steering committee to oversee the development of our new accountability system, along with the creation of designated working groups to focus on various aspects of the system’s development. Our educators and stakeholders will play a key role in the development of this system and will be fully engaged in this important work.

Back in November, I wrote that Maine had an advantage in not being among the first states to submit a No Child Left Behind flexibility request.

I’m still of that opinion. After all, we’ve had the benefit of seeing the flexibility process play out with other states, reflecting, and gearing up to take a more constructive path forward. That we will soon begin down that path is the reason for today’s announcement. I am looking forward to the work ahead.