Questions, answers and discussion from the Governor’s Education Conference

There wasn’t time to answer all the questions at the Governor’s Conference on Education: Putting Students First at Cony High School on March 22. So we’ve assembled them here and will be posting more questions and answers over the coming days.

Meanwhile, we want your participation. What additional questions do you have? What did you think of the conference? Which ideas do you think will work in Maine, and which not?

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Questions and Answers

A-F school performance grading

Q: Maine is moving toward a proficiency-based system, where students are deemed proficient or not, rather than receiving traditional letter grades. Won’t the approach of grading schools A-F make it harder for parents and others to understand and support the move toward a proficiency-based system?

A: You raise a good point, one we have thought about and have taken seriously. The goal of the school performance grading system (A-F) is to simplify school performance for parents, taxpayers and others. All kinds of useful data comes out about individual schools during the year, including NECAP test scores, science test scores, SAT scores, federal AYP status, AP participation and more. Each of these tells a different, sometimes inconsistent, story. The goal of A-F grading is to give a starting point, basic understanding of how a school is doing. When we talk about “priority” and “struggling” or “one-star” and “four-star” schools, it does not really give parents an understanding. For better and worse, A-F is clear. From that point, we hope people will dig deeper. Here in Maine, we’ll be unveiling our Data Warehouse, with detailed info about each school, at the same time we roll out the A-F grades. We hope people will use both – the letter grade overview, and the details that come with digging into the Data Warehouse.

Q: Does the proposed A-F school performance grading apply to public charter schools and the town academies?

A: Yes.

Q: Since we, as a state, were graded where is the rubric for that grading and what are the objective standards that that rubric is based on?  Did the MLTI policies factor into this grading, or is this a policy being copied and admired globally?

A: Eric Lerum of StudentsFirst, responds…

The StudentsFirst State Policy Report Card graded all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, according to a policy rubric aligned with the StudentsFirst policy agenda. States were graded according to policies in three policy pillars: Elevating the Teaching Profession, Empowering Parents with Information and Choice, and Ensuring Resources Are Used Wisely and Governing Well. The policy rubric, along with information on the policies themselves, the research behind them, and a discussion of the findings, can be found in the national report available online at


Q: If you are promoting performance pay for teachers, why not performance rewards for schools and districts?

A: Our approach to teacher evaluations is to focus on professional development. The goal is not to provide merit pay (though some schools may do that). The real purpose is to help teachers and principals get valuable feedback on what they are doing well and what they can improve, and to give them the support to make improvements. We also want to provide supports to struggling school districts and schools. We anticipate providing financial and technical support to struggling schools. Otherwise, it would not be fair – we don’t want to label a school with a “D” or “F” and then give it no resources or support to improve.

Public Charter Schools

Q: These innovations sound great. Why can’t public schools implement the kinds of changes we are looking to charter schools to provide?

A: Public schools can do most or all of these things, either through their existing structure and state law, or by becoming an “innovative school,” as defined in Title 20-A, Sections 6212 and 6213. Charter schools are formed by groups who are interested in promoting innovative practices with more flexibility and by nature tend to push at some of those reforms and innovations. Make no mistake, though, there are some public schools that are also working on educator evaluation systems that support and hold teachers and principals accountable and on proficiency-based, learner-centered education models and other reforms. (See Commissioner Bowen’s Promising Practices Tour and the Center for Best Practices.)

Q: What tests will public charter school students be required to take?

A: They must take the same statewide testing required in other public schools. Currently, that is the NECAP for English Language Arts and mathematics in grades 3-8, the science MEA in grades 5, 8, and 11, and the SAT in grade 11. When the new Smarter Balanced assessments are implemented statewide in 2014-15, public charter schools will administer them the same as other public schools.

Q: Where is the accountability in public charter schools when there is no school board?

A: Public charter school boards receive five-year charters for their schools and sign a contract with the authorizer – so far, in Maine, the Maine Charter School Commission. They are accountable to the authorizer and their contract lays out performance expectations that must be met. The school can and will be closed if it does not meet the expectations. The charter may not be renewed after five years. Finances are audited. And students at public charter schools take the same statewide assessments as other public schools. The greatest accountability is to parents, who will send their children elsewhere if the school does not perform well, a form of accountability that traditional public schools do not have.

Q: Do you feel that school choice and charter schools were the reason for Florida’s success?

A: Adam Peshek of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, responds… School choice was an important part of the suite of reforms that Florida put in place.  Giving parents choice put the system on notice that they needed to change.  Student achievement data proves that the “threat” of choice made a difference in student learning in the public school.  The McKay scholarships are a great example.  Performance among students with disabilities improved in public schools that were near a private school participating in the McKay program.

Educator Evaluations and Accountability

Q: What if a teacher is highly effective in teaching their students, the students are excelling and excited about learning, but the teacher is not following the mandated Common Core.  Are they excluded in your evaluation of teacher success?

A: Maine has adopted the Common Core as its standards for English language arts and mathematics, which means that student achievement will be measured against those standards. Teacher evaluations will include multiple factors, including student growth in meeting the standards. A highly effective teacher’s students will need to show growth in achievement on meeting those standards. So, yes, all teachers are held to the same expectations.

Q: When will an earnest and serious conversation take place about tenure? Reform will not happen unless tenure goes.

A: The last Maine Legislature extended the time it takes to achieve “continuing contract status” from two years to three years. We continue to be interested in exploring the issue of tenure. We think that by addressing teacher evaluations, we are getting at the crux of the issue: good teachers and principals want to improve their craft. With meaningful evaluations, educators get that useful feedback and supports to improve. But the new law also provides that a teacher who is rated as “ineffective” for two years in a row may not have their contract renewed (it is just cause for nonrenewal).

Q: How can the problems associated with tenure, dismissal, effectiveness, etc. be addressed when the teachers unions work to keep every teacher in their positions regardless of their abilities?

A: We certainly do not see eye-to-eye with the unions on many issues. However, they do have an important job to do protecting teachers from arbitrary actions by administrators and school boards and we respect that. We believe that our current efforts on teacher evaluation show great promise in that teachers, and the unions, recognize the need for meaningful evaluations and supports for teachers so that they can improve their skills and student outcomes. A sophisticated, meaningful evaluation system, as now required in Maine state law, will protect all sides, and also ultimately make it possible to remove teachers and principals in the rare cases where that is merited.

Q: How do we award performance pay to a teacher as we move toward individualized learning where an 8-year-old is being taught by five different teachers, based on the student’s mastery of standards?  What school district is doing this well?

A: Eric Lerum of StudentsFirst, responds… Great question – it’s one that hasn’t been answered yet. Districts must move toward compensating teachers based on their performance, and for most districts today, this will likely follow a more traditional performance pay model. But as more schools and districts move toward individualized learning and instruction, evaluation systems and performance pay systems will also have to adapt. Districts will have to determine how to measure each teacher’s impact on the student and his or her content mastery. Technology will certainly play a large role in addressing this challenge. This topic warrants much further discussion, but I’m not aware of any district that has developed a workable model yet.

Q: Why utilize principals as evaluators – too much time away and will principal evaluations take a hit?  Why not use evaluation teams – not removing teachers from classrooms?  What is in place to support ‘low’ ranking teachers or principals?

A: One benefit to creating stronger evaluation systems that utilize classroom observations as one measure of teacher effectiveness is that principals must prioritize a greater amount of time on observing instruction and developing teachers. Most principals spend far too little time in the classroom, observing instruction – it is little wonder that schools are so slow to improve when the instructional leader of the school is not prioritizing his or her time on what is happening in the classroom. Reforming principal evaluations to include measures of school-wide student growth and of a principal’s ability to manage and develop effective teachers goes hand in hand with improving teacher evaluations.

The Measures of Effective Teaching Study, sponsored by the Gates Foundation, recommends that more than one observer, such as a dedicated master teacher or a 3rd party evaluator, conduct classroom observations. By diversifying the evaluators, administrators can triangulate observation data and improve reliability and accuracy of the evaluation ratings.

Support for low-performing educators varies greatly by district and school. Stronger, meaningful evaluations can provide far greater targeted feedback for teachers and principals, but it’s critical that administrators use this information to develop tailored development plans that enable educators to improve in areas necessary.  Further, as states get further along in their implementation of the Common Core standards, there are increasingly greater opportunities for educators to collaborate across districts and states. There is a wealth of high quality, often cost-free resources online, and I expect these resources to continue to grow and be refined over the coming years.

Q: Considerable evidence ( for example) supports the I-Room schoolhouse model in which the teacher is free from rules and is accountable only to the parents.  Information about methods of teaching is welcome, but forcing it on teachers at great administrative expense is costly & indefensible.  Why won’t merit pay and weakening unions to permit firing inept teachers be equally effective and much cheaper than what you propose?

A: Eric Lerum of StudentsFirst, responds…  Paying teachers based on their performance and holding them accountable for the results they achieve in the classroom are key reforms necessary to elevate the teaching profession. Teachers deserve a modern compensation system that reflects their performance and rewards them for their impact on children. Effective and highly effective teachers deserve to be paid more, and raises should be tied to teaching effectiveness. Moreover, educators must also be held accountable when they are not getting results. Teachers and principals whose students are not learning and growing over the course of the year must develop and improve; if they do not, and are consistently ineffective, they should no longer be in the classroom.

Q: Would you agree that professional development is the key to accomplishing any of these reforms?  Don’t we need to invest in our teachers to empower them to change the status quo?

A: Eric Lerum of StudentsFirst, responds…  Professional development is absolutely essential to implementing reforms, improving our schools, and ensuring students succeed. Right now, professional development in most districts is not actually targeted to the specific training needs of educators; rather, too often PD comes in the form of a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach that does little to improve instruction. By implementing a robust, meaningful evaluation system, schools and districts can provided targeted feedback and tailored professional development that meets individual teachers’ needs. And with better evaluation systems, principals will also be evaluated and held accountable for how they support teachers’ development – that’s been missing for far too long.

As the question points out, stronger professional development requires investment as well. That’s why it is so critical that we empower district and school leaders with the flexibility to use their resources for what they need to create stronger schools. Instead of locking leaders into using funds in only particular ways, state policies should empower them to invest more in initiatives and supports that work for teachers and students. States and districts must re-think how every dollar is invested, from salary schedules to training programs to instructional supports – policymakers need to align resource investments with what works and stop investing in things that do not produce results for students.


Q: In Florida’s recent gains in reading, what is the percent of districts using Scholastics Read 180, System 44 or other teacher professional development systems guided by Scholastic? 

A: Adam Peshek of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, responds…  While instructional materials are important, we wouldn’t attribute all the gains in reading to a particular program.  Our reading policy is comprehensive:  teacher training, a system of assessments to drive instruction, reading coaches, parental notification and training, and individual reading plans, to name a few.

6 thoughts on “Questions, answers and discussion from the Governor’s Education Conference

  1. Really? Everything I have heard and read about Common Core is a nightmare! It takes away local control and hands it over to the government to administer curriculum as to how they see fit. If a parent dissagrees, which I do, they cannot opt their children out of the program. That’s outrageous! There is a website set up by parents and former teachers who oppose this trojan horse of an educational curriculm. More people are speaking out every day . Shouldn’t parents sign off on something like this, instead of a Governor’s Group and the Federal government? We had no say in this change, and it’s not right. Our children are our life, and we are losing our rights as parents. I don’t want my kids designing a new communist flag, or being shamed to be Americans by reading literature aimed at glorifying socialism and servitude, as opposed to celebrating individuality, genuine inginuity and personal responsibility. I oppose this in every way! Do your homework, and learn how children will be tracked with an extensive database of not only their schoolastic acomplishments as a “one-size-fits-all”, the religious affiliations of the family, incomes, political affiliations, their mental health records, etc. Think I’m wrong? look it up! This was pushed through in the first stimulus package… sounds like a means to snake in legislation without ANY consent from the public. If it’s so wonderful, why so secretive?

  2. The Maine Legislature has long set the standards that are expected of students, and for schools to help their students to achieve. While the state sets standards, it does not determine curriculum. That is, local schools determine how to teach and what to teach, but in the end they must be working to help students achieve the Maine Learning Results standards. As of the past couple years, those standards now incorporate the Common Core standards for English language arts and mathematics, which were developed collaboratively among most of the states. These standards are more rigorous than the ones we previously had – and include skills that are necessary for our students to be successful after high school in careers and/or college or other post-high school training and study.

  3. Glendon, you raise an important and valid question. We have not yet finalized the A-F plan for Maine, but I can tell you that growth in student achievement is an important element of the calculations. As you point out, not every student population is the same. The A-F calculations will reflect that. If a school has lower student achievement than another school – for any of a number of reasons – but its students make a year or more growth each year in school, that will be reflected in the school grade.

    This is a bit trickier to measure at the high school level because we test only once in high school – at the 11th grade – and so we can’t compare the same students’ performance from one year to the next. We’re finalizing a slightly different measure at the high school level, which is still aimed at reflecting the growth in achievement from one year to the next, rather than simply comparing all schools equally, regardless of the factors that contribute to its student achievement levels.

  4. Question on A-F School Performance Grading: In the town where I live our students have high school choice. About half go to a private town academy while the other half go to a public high school. The private school does not accept special education students and has high user fees in addition to the tuition paid by our town. As a result, all of our special education students and all but one of our free/reduced lunch students go to the public school. This skewing of student demographics has a large effect on student outcomes at the two schools. How can an A-F school performance grading system be a fair measure when comparing these two schools?

  5. Three different people giving the same answers in three different ways is the way I look at the 3 member panel discussion of charter schools.
    Common Core is something I learned about recently, and I notice from a question above that it has been adopted in Maine. I wonder if our governor realizes how he has been manipulated on the education issue!
    The acoustics left much to be desired from where we were sitting, so we decided to leave during the first bread, not having been able to hear all of the speakers’ comments.

  6. Doesn’t the Maine Constitution “Article VIII – Part First – Education” require local school funding and control via local school boards? Wouldn’t the proposed structure for implementing Common Core and Outcome/Standards Based Education violate this?
    – James Blier

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