June 23, 2018
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Department of Education seeking input as it tries to get Maine out of ‘a disaster’ of a law

By Andrew Neff, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — Even as he decried the law, Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said the problems brought on by the No Child Left Behind Act can pose an opportunity for the state of Maine.

“Our thinking is the law’s a disaster and it has done terrible things to our schools,” Bowen said during a forum on school accountability and recognition at Bangor High School. “And no one thinks Congress will act to address it.”

To get more freedom and flexibility, the state must prepare a formal request for Elementary and Secondary Education Act flexibility.

“It is an opportunity,” said Bowen, a former Camden middle school teacher. “There are some states who are saying they’re not doing it because the feds created this mess and they feel like they’re being told to clean it up. So there’s a lot of disagreement how to handle this even among commissioners.

“But we have to take an opportunity, even if it’s in a framework none of us prefer, to fix this thing or at least make it better.”

To that end, Bowen made Bangor the first of three forum stops — the second is live and online from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and the third is in Portland from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

“We wanted to at least get the northernish part of the state and the southernish part of the state,” said Bowen, whose eyes bore dark circles as proof of the Penobscot native’s hectic schedule the last few weeks. “Believe me, if I thought I could get away with driving a car to Presque Isle and talking to teachers and students and then head down to York, I’d be delighted, but right now it really is just a time crunch with the Legislature coming back to this budget crisis.”

For the first part of the forum, Bowen went over the the finer points of the advantages of Elementary and Secondary Education Act flexibility status as well as what it takes to get it.

“It’s not a repeal of NCLB, but it keeps the basic accountability framework in place while providing more flexibility for schools,” Bowen said.

Goals include developing a system of recognition, support and accountability for Maine schools, setting ambitious but achievable annual measurement objectives, developing new rankings for schools — such as high-performing, low-performing and achievement gaps — and creating an evaluation system for teachers and principals.

During the second part of the forum, Bowen took questions, comments and suggestions from attendees, including Bangor High School history department chairman Bill Ames.

“I was really encouraged. I felt I was listened to,” said Ames, who made a point about some students needing five years to graduate instead of four and being no less educated. “I’ve been here 25 years and every other time people have come, they’ve come to tell us what they’re doing. This time I felt he listened.”

Bowen, who also taught public school in Fairfax County, Virginia, said an online survey by the Department of Education already has been filled out by 850 people in just three days.

Before the forum, Bowen met with students from Bangor High and Brewer High School during an hour-long dinner session.

“What I think is refreshing to get from parents and students is, ‘Why are we doing it like this?’ and that’s helpful to have,” Bowen said. “You can get down in the weeds too far and that’s what was great about sitting with those kids for an hour.

“They really appreciated I was there to listen to them and they filled up the whole hour after I asked what makes a good school. They want to have a voice too.”

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