The following is a news release from the Governor’s Office.
Everyone agrees putting students first is most important
AUGUSTA – Invited to Maine by Gov. Paul R. LePage, education policy leaders from around the country shared practices, models and innovative reforms with more than 200 legislators, business leaders, educators and others at Cony High School Friday at the Governor’s Conference on Education: Putting Students First.
Keynote speaker Dr. Tony Bennett, the recently elected commissioner of education in Florida, spoke about innovations he introduced when he was head of Indiana’s education department. Among those innovations: school performance grading and a focus on data-based teacher evaluation systems and teacher effectiveness.
He called school choice “the social justice issue of our generation,” saying that middle-class families can choose where they want to live, and they often have the ability to send children to private school if they aren’t satisfied with the nearby public school. But lower-class families don’t have the ability to make those same choices.
But Bennett warned that more schools are not the answer. “I don’t want more schools,” he said. “I want more quality schools.”
Bennett spoke following three panel sessions. In the first, panelists advocated for giving students more pathways and choices in their pursuit of an education. They emphasized freedom in choosing schools; using virtual technology to augment classroom experience; and encouraging students to consider community college and post-secondary training in addition to the traditionally promoted four-year college.
“It is not a critique to say we have to do things differently,” said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform. “When you think about what needs to be done and what’s happening, the reason that charter schools are so critical is because, at their root, it’s the opportunity to innovate, create variety and personalize around student groups and needs.”
The first panel also featured Leslie Hiner, vice president of programs and state relations at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and Rene Menard, head of school, Thornton Academy, who spoke about Maine’s long tradition of school choice in many communities where students are sent with public tuition dollars to the academies.
The focus of the second session was on teacher effectiveness and quality. Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, told audience members that a teacher is the most important in-school factor determining the quality of a child’s education.
“We can’t solve problems by dismissing teachers,” Walsh said. “But we need them to be more effective.”
From rigorous academic standards to standardized measurement, data-based accountability and school choice, Florida has pursued a robust reform plan that generated results. Three experts from the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education talked about Florida’s plan and how Maine could adopt elements of it, then adapt them to Maine’s needs and circumstances.
From the time Florida first implemented some of its reforms in 1998 to now, the state has seen student achievement grow by more than a grade level at any point in time, according to Patricia Levesque, the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
“We constantly raise the bar and challenge our schools so our teachers and students reach a little higher,” Levesque said. Levesque and Matthew Ladner, also of the Foundation, described Florida’s policy of not promoting students to fourth grade if they could not read at grade level. They credited the policy with ensuring that schools better support students in literacy and keep students from being set up for later failure.
Muhamed Nur, a sophomore at Deering High School in Portland, also spoke to the audience.
“Students tend to learn more and work harder in classes that they enjoy,” said Nur. “But at the same time, they tend of goof off and not learn in classes that they don’t like. While they’re waiting and preparing for the future, they’re not learning today, in the present. Now, I don’t know what the solution would be to this issue, but that’s up to us, students, teachers, educators and policy government officials.”
Nur said the voices and opinions of students should be heard. “We feel that many decisions regarding education — our education — are made without informing us or even communicating with us,” he said. “We understand that you have our best interest in mind. But remember, at the end of the day, your decisions affect our education, and we just want our voice heard and appreciated.”
Governor LePage, who has made education one of the top priorities of his Administration, sought to create the conference after attending a national education policy conference organized by the Foundation for Excellence in Education in Washington, D.C. in November. He saw it as an opportunity to bring reform ideas to Maine for discussion with policy leaders.
“Education, for me, was a way out of extreme poverty, and I want every child in Maine to have the same opportunity I had to pursue a quality education,” Governor LePage said. “We should not be afraid to look at what other states are doing. We won’t pursue every idea discussed at today’s conference. But we will consider all of them, and we will engage in a conversation with Maine’s education and political leaders on how our work can support children in achieving greater success in education and in life.”
Video from all sessions of the conference will be available on the conference website in the coming days at www.maine.gov/doe/governorsconference/. Additionally, answers to questions submitted by audience members will be posted in the coming weeks on the Maine Department of Education website.