Maine’s next top education official faces hard challenges

Posted Dec. 20, 2010, at 6:31 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:29 a.m.

With inauguration day fast approaching, Gov.-elect Paul LePage and his team have been working around the clock to fill positions in his coming administration. A handful of appointments have been made, but many more await, not the least of which is the governor-elect’s choice for education commissioner.

In fact, with the possible exception of his pick for the new commissioner of Health and Human Services, it is hard to imagine a more important decision for the incoming governor to make than whom he will choose to lead the state’s Department of Education.

Why? Because Maine does not have the economy it once did, one where well-paying jobs were available to those with a limited formal education. Today, not just a highschool diploma, but some kind of post-secondary education is almost required for any job that promises good pay and benefits.

Maine’s education system, though, simply isn’t getting the job done. According to a recent report by the American Diploma Project, out of every 100 ninth-graders in Maine, just 76 will graduate from high school on time. Forty-nine of the original 100 will enroll in college right out of high school, 34 will still be enrolled in college their sophomore year, and only 24 out of the original 100 will earn a college degree.

Maine will never be able to compete nationally and globally unless it dramatically improves these outcomes.

To get Maine’s education system back on track, LePage outlined an ambitious school reform agenda. The governor-elect wants to continue efforts to squeeze administrative savings out of Maine’s schools and school districts, but also wants to raise student achievement, improve teacher quality, strengthen the state’s vocational education programs, expand learning options for students and families and bring added levels of accountability to the entire system.

Implementing this agenda will be no easy task. The new administration is inheriting a budget shortfall totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. The loss of federal stimulus funds, which run out at the end of this school year, will almost certainly mean further cuts to school budgets statewide, leaving limited resources available for school reform efforts.

The incoming administration also inherits a series of other challenges.

School district consolidation, which was sold to the public as a way of containing costs and improving student outcomes, has stalled. Districts where consolidation was relatively easy have moved forward with merger efforts, but the majority of districts have not. The state’s largest school units were not required to consolidate in the first place, and another 80 or so districts have yet to comply with the consolidation mandate in any way. Savings from consolidation have been hard to find, and there is little evidence that the merger of districts, where it has happened, has meant improved student performance.

The state is in the middle of a series of other education reform initiatives as well. Maine is moving toward adoption of the so-called “Common Core” standards, and is part of a multi-state initiative to adopt common student assessment systems. These efforts, which would change what students learn and the way that learning is measured, are just getting underway. The state also is piloting a new standards-based instructional system, which would replace the grade-level model used in schools for generations with a system that moves students ahead based on their mastery of course content.

The Department of Education also has been working for years on a new K-12 data system, which will track student achievement on a school and district basis, and will even be able to track the effectiveness of individual teachers. The completion and full deployment of the data system will be one of the new administration’s most important tasks. A state-level task force also is developing performance-based pay models for teachers and school administrators, something LePage has said he supports.

The incoming education commissioner will have to juggle these and other reform initiatives while also working to advance the LePage education agenda, which includes additional reforms, such as charter schools.

To make all this happen, the new education commissioner will face the additional challenge of overcoming a pervasive distrust of the state that has developed among the school districts. Where once the districts might have viewed the state Department of Education as a helpful partner in the effort to make Maine’s schools better, failed state-led initiatives such as Local Assessment and district consolidation have soured that relationship. The new education commissioner, therefore, will have to restore trust at the local level while also implementing a bold and transformative school reform agenda.

No easy task, but a critically important one if Maine’s schools and the students they serve are to move forward.

Stephen Bowen of Rockport directs the Center for Education Excellence at the Maine Heritage Policy Center. His blog may be found at www.GreatSchoolsforME.org.

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