Schools Face Choice

Posted April 07, 2010, at 6:59 p.m.

These are scary times for public education in Maine. A severe recession has left state education funds depleted, and steep declines in student enrollment are expected to continue over the next decade.

More challenges, related to funding and performance, lie ahead. Schools can rise to meet those challenges or resist acknowledging them. The choice they make will have significant consequences.

The release of a list of Maine’s consistently lowest-performing schools posed difficult questions for some schools. The 10 lowest were eligible to share $12 million in federal funds to improve student performance, but that offer resulted in some dramatic responses. Boards overseeing Houlton and Hodgdon high schools in Aroostook County rejected the funds and the rules that went with them. Communities certainly have the right to pursue an alternate course to educational excellence, but it seemed avoiding the pain associated with change motivated the rejection of funding.

In RSU 24 in Sullivan, the board voted to pursue the federal funds, knowing that action would mean Sumner Memorial High School’s principal would be out of a job. The board was disappointed at losing an administrator they supported, but accepted the hoped-for greater good that may come from the federal funds. That sort of action reflects the bold thinking and tough-love approach needed to turn around poor-performing schools.

Many school board members and administrators around the state breathed a sigh of relief that their schools were not on the dreaded list (although a few quietly wished they were). But that response misses the point that far too many of Maine schools are not showing adequate academic progress in key curriculum areas, as a subsequent list from the Department of Education highlighted.

The department summed up the appropriate response: “Most important is what schools and communities do with the information. A school that has less than 100 percent of its students meeting the standards should be working — and most schools are — to improve student achievement. Whether a school has 20 percent or 80 percent of students meeting standards, the important question is: ‘What is the school doing to improve?’ A school with 50 percent proficiency would rank somewhere in the middle of the list, but that is less important than the fact that half the students are not meeting standards and therefore there is work to do.”

Another challenge, perhaps greater, is the steep drop-off in state funding available to schools next year. The one-time federal stimulus money no longer will be available to cushion the blow of diminished state revenue. Schools must prepare for an extended lean period, and make the hard choices that come with it.

Related to both diminished funding and the federal Race to the Top program is a bill that was in limbo Wednesday afternoon that would tie teacher compensation to student performance. States that receive the federal money must have a merit-based pay mechanism. Whether the bill passes or not, some sort of student test-based assessment will be used to evaluate teachers in the coming years. Schools must accept this reality.

Scary times can cause paralysis and denial, or they can spur fundamental change. Maine schools must embrace the latter.

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