PORTLAND, Maine — The thorny subject of how the state should evaluate the progress of students, the effectiveness of teachers and the quality of oversight by public school administrators was at the forefront of public forums held Wednesday by Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.
First with 11 students and then with approximately 40 educators, the intent of the forums was for Bowen to troll for ideas that the Department of Education can include in an application that will have vast ramifications for Maine: the state’s application for waivers from some of the provisions in the President George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act. Under the Obama administration, the program is now called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
For the students, who hailed from several schools in the Portland area, the message to Bowen was clear: Their success correlates with the quality of engagement provided by their teachers and schools.
“If you have a good school, you want to go there,” said Zev Bliss, a sophomore at Casco Bay High School. “When I get up in the morning, I do want to go to Casco Bay.”
Earlier this year, Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan introduced the waiver process to help schools bypass some of No Child Left Behind’s strict provisions, including that every school bring 100 percent of students to proficiency in a variety of subject areas by 2014. Schools still will be held to most of the program’s requirements but the waiver process allows states to formulate their own ways of measuring success.
Among all the requirements Maine must meet, Bowen said the most difficult one is evaluating educators — and he said the federal government isn’t likely to make it any easier. Eleven other states already have filed their waiver applications and Bowen said he and others are keenly awaiting the U.S. Department of Education’s response so they know what sorts of solutions will be successful.
Among the ideas discussed by the students were surveying parents, letting students evaluate teachers and observing a teacher’s classroom process without his or her knowledge. Bowen, echoing a philosophy he has voiced many times in his tenure as the state’s top education official, said he favors tracking progress over simple achievement.
“It’s tough to hold a teacher responsible for getting every kid to the same point at the same time because kids are coming into the classroom from all over the place,” said Bowen. “Maybe we should be tracking their improvement.”
If there was anything the group of students appeared to agree on, it was their dislike for standardized tests such as the New England Common Assessment Program and the Scholastic Aptitude Test, both of which are given to every public school student and are used as measures under No Child Left Behind.
“No kid wants to take those,” said one of the students. “Those tests are horrible. I fall asleep in every one of them.”
When Bowen asked her how students — and by extension, teachers — should be evaluated, the student suggested some sort of end-of-year project, such as the capstone process used by some colleges and universities.
In a public forum held after Bowen’s talk with the students, he said it’s unlikely that education will move away from standardized testing anytime soon.
“We’ve got to figure out how to measure the effect that a teacher’s had,” he said. “We’ve struggled with this for years … The question is how do we exert pressure on the feds, who are locked into these statistics? If you can’t get a statistician to put a check mark on it, they’re not interested.”
Portland schools Superintendent James Morse urged Bowen to write provisions into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act waiver application that accommodate immigrants and students from various socioeconomic conditions.
“How in any logical world would anyone expect for a youngster who had no English to be able to pass a culturally formed assessment a few months later?” said Morse. “It defies logic.”
Molly Smith, an elementary school teacher in Yarmouth, told Bowen that standardized tests have become obsolete.
“We need our assessment tools to catch up with the way we’re teaching our kids,” said Smith. “It doesn’t make sense to them or us to have them do some wonderful project that has meaning and value … and then ask them to somehow pack that into a multiple choice test.”
Bowen, who intends to file the state’s waiver application by the end of February, said if a system of measuring student improvement over time is accepted by the federal government — as opposed to the current system of having students all strive for the same result — it will result in a major change in the way students, parents and schools look at themselves and each other.
“That growth model is really going to set some people back on their heels,” he said. “We’re going to see some low-performing schools that are all of a sudden going to rise up. And we’re going to have some high-achieving schools where people are going to say, what exactly are they achieving?”