Former education commissioner urges versatility to help Maine schooling make the grade

Posted April 04, 2011, at 8:26 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — Former Maine Education Commissioner J. Duke Albanese returned to his educational stomping grounds to urge more creativity, versatility and diversity in an effort to help Maine make the grade.

Maine was 27th in a recent national education ranking by the publication Education Week; is 39th nationally in average teacher salary, according to a legislative study; and its salary comfort score by online service TeacherPortal is 47th.

If those were grades, Maine would be failing, but the former Messalonskee school district superintendent says it’s not too late to start cramming and improve the state’s GPA.

“If no changes are made to the math, 85 percent of the country’s schools will be on the failing list for the No Child Left Behind program,” said Albanese, who earned a master’s degree and certificate of advanced study from the University of Maine.

Albanese was back at the University of Maine on Monday to tour his alma mater and give a public talk, “The Elusive Pursuit of Education Reform: Prospects for Change,” before a group of 56 students, educators and members of the public.

“If we don’t redesign our schooling, we’re not going to be properly preparing our students,” Albanese said. “We have some excellent schools, but they tend to be pockets of excellence.”

The main point of Albanese’s talk was to stress how Maine’s overall teaching approach needs to change. The Rhode Island native says it’s basically a two-pronged approach.

“First, I think we really have to work hard in public schools to understand kids today don’t learn the way many of us learn and they are truly digital natives,” he explained. “They demand more about relevance and want to see things applied and learn with projects.

“To motivate them and capture their attention and keep them in school, schools have to change and not keep packaging things the way they have before.”

Albanese noted that students don’t need more information, they need to know how to manage it, find it, prioritize it and put it to use in productive ways.

His second point concerns finding a way to reward excellence in teaching.

“Teacher effectiveness is really the agenda for today. Let’s make sure we’re doing our very best to keep and attract people with our classrooms,” he said. “We must tie teacher salaries to student performance somehow.

“We also need to find ways to remunerate them the way they should be. I don’t know if it should be individually, but maybe as a faculty, or a department or as a team in a school to reward performance.”

Albanese noted Maine’s increasingly older work force and said the trend is the same with teachers and school administrators.

“We’re going to have a lot of Maine’s faculty retiring in coming years, and the real question is who’s going to take their place?” he said. “I think you’re going to see principals much younger than they were before.”

Albanese, who served as Maine’s education commissioner from 1996 to 2003 and now serves as senior policy adviser for Maine’s Great Schools Partnership, detailed some of the significant examples of education reform over the last 30 years, from a strong national call to action in 1983 with expanded student testing and increased high school graduation and teacher certification requirements to an expanded federal role in testing and accountability, calls for charter schools, and publicly identifying poorly performing schools.

Albanese limited his criticism of the national No Child Left Behind educational program to one specific portion.

“It’s good to have a national edict, but let’s not get overly prescriptive on how to get there,” he said. “Let’s let the states work with local school districts, so I think there needs to be a revisitation of No Child Left Behind.”

Albanese paraphrased former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, saying, “Education is a national priority, a state responsibility and a local function,” and added, “we have to understand all those levels in our system.”

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