Bad news sure is hard to take, especially when it’s about the future of our young people. So it’s not surprising that last week, when Maine announced it considers Deer Isle-Stonington High School one of its 10 lowest-performing that local education leaders responded defensively. Some of its finger-pointing has merit — the state’s criteria for the selection process could be expanded; the federal requirements are draconian. Some of it is less justified and ends up blaming our fishing community and students by intimating our students do not want-need a college-ready education. And ultimately, their focus on the provision requiring low-improvement schools to replace principals sidesteps its own accountability for a real and disappointing situation.
While not surprising, these defensive responses — focused on adults (jobs), not students (performance) — are as troubling as the news itself.
No matter how you analyze it, this is a wake-up call — and very possibly a crucial opportunity — for our communities. The federal “Race to the Top” program is based on the premise that schools that underserve our students are required to take drastic actions quickly to improve. Every year in which only slow, incremental change is made is another year we fail more students. Where is our sense of urgency? Who is accountable, and what is the plan?
In his written responses, Principal Todd West correctly acknowledges many of the real issues we can use to identify our high school as a “persistently low achieving school.” These include a low graduation rate (75 percent). Additionally, our high school graduates do not have the skills needed to perform basic jobs in our community, as recently identified at a community business-education breakfast.
Faced with the demands of today’s global marketplace on our fisheries and every aspect of our local economy, we send fewer than 50 percent of our graduates — well below the national average — to college (National Student Clearinghouse). Fewer than 30 percent of the Deer Isle-Stonington Class of 2003 graduated from either a two- or four-year institution. High school graduates earn, on average, only 62 percent of those holding a four-year degree (Maine Compact for Higher Education). While our community’s fishery lessens the impact of this earnings statistic, it does so for fewer and fewer of our (mostly male) graduates.
Most alarming is what our student data clearly indicate, yet is not communicated to voters. Our island kids start school (as documented by third-grade data) meeting and exceeding standards and the performance of youth from around Maine, particularly in math. While performance declines some, they do well through eighth grade — when they fall off a cliff.
We need to admit something is awry (other than a national test) and requires drastic, perhaps unpleasant change. By any measure and over a lengthy period (significantly pre-dating West’s less than three-year tenure), our high school has not been meeting our students’ (and thus our community’s) needs. Who is accountable, and what is the plan?
The Race to the Top legislation — based on national data showing school leadership and improved teaching practices make huge differences in student performance, regardless of levels of student-community advantage — holds educators accountable for student performance: thus the “remove the principal” requirement. Because it is based on models in which superintendents-CEOs and school boards are far removed from day-to-day operations, it assumes principals have full control of the levers required to improve student learning.
In Maine, the high value we place on “local control” results in accountability often ineffectively shared among principals, superintendents and school committees. We should use Race to the Top to identify and create change that sets high expectations for students, and gives principals the tools to verifiably and consistently improve performance: effective budgeting processes based on data confirming student achievement and improvement; restructured teacher contracts, evaluations, development, and scheduling based on teacher-student progress; alignment with national standards; and the authority to move quickly with necessary changes.
This is our community school, and we are all accountable. This is a call to action, whether or not we access the large amount of federal money potentially available to us. Race to the Top sets important, game-changing criteria for improving student performance. Our job is to demand great expectations and real results. Why? Because these are real kids who rely on us to prepare them to face a real world.
Linda L. Nelson is executive director of Opera House Arts at the Stonington Opera House.