Where are our schools going?

Posted March 26, 2010, at 10:11 p.m.

In the two weeks since the Maine Department of Education released a list of 10 “persistently low-achieving schools,” the reaction has been varied. Some communities have reacted with anger that their schools would be labeled based on only one measure that cannot possibly capture all of the aspects of a school. Others, perhaps a little wary, have nonetheless embraced the promise of significant federal funds being made available to these schools to help improve student achievement.

Make no mistake. Excellent things are happening at all of these schools. Low performance on standardized tests can be attributed to many factors. One should not draw the conclusion that these schools are sitting back and doing nothing. And they certainly should not conclude that these are the “worst” schools in the state. They are not.

In fact, only about 85 to 90 of the 600-plus schools in the state meet the federal criteria that would even allow them to be eligible for the designation “persistently lowest-achieving” and to apply for the federal funds that come with it. Some of those other 500-plus schools have achievement levels and progress levels that are as low, or lower. But because they do not receive Title I funds, or because they are “making progress” according to another federal standard, they could not be named under this program.

During the days leading up to the announcement, we had several calls from superintendents and principals — not because they were worried they would be named, but because they were worried they might not. They know their students are not meeting standards and they want the money to make improvements. Label or no, whatever the rank, what is important to them is how many of their students are meeting standards and how they can raise that number.

Over the past two weeks we have tried to be as clear as possible that these are not the “worst” schools in the state and also to discourage comparing and ranking. Whether a school is the fifth lowest in achievement scores or fifth highest, the only right course of action is to continually work to improve.

Programming beyond the regular school day is not for low-achieving students — it is for all students. Professional development is not for underperforming teachers; it is for all teachers. The 10 schools named under this program have the opportunity to apply for up to $12 million collectively for intensive improvement activities. While it may not be the right solution for every school, it is an incredible opportunity that should be considered carefully. And ideally without angst over who ranked where on a list.

Meanwhile, the department has received several Freedom of Access requests from schools and from a group of legislators for the list of all schools in the state, showing the percentage of students meeting and exceeding standards over the past three years. Because of the formal request, we are required to make the list public and will do so in the coming days. We will not “rank” the schools, but the list will contain all the data, and we know there will be a strong temptation by some to do so.

The information on this list, almost all of which has been available on our Web site for years, can be extremely useful for parents, school boards, taxpayers and others to have conversations about where their schools are, where they are going, and what they want them to be. The information can also be misused.

The percentage of students meeting standards is extremely important, but it is not the only measure of a school. For example, how many students are dropping out of a school? What is the graduation rate? Do we know the individual needs of all students? Are students challenged and are we providing the most appropriate learning opportunities to meet those students’ individual needs?

The bottom line is not “where we are,” but “where are we going?” All schools should be working to improve, whether 20 percent or 80 percent of their students are meeting standards. If it’s less than 100 percent, we have a lot of work to do.

Susan A. Gendron is Maine’s education commissioner.

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