June 24, 2018
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How Maine is reforming education through collaboration

Abigail Curtis | BDN
Abigail Curtis | BDN
Stephen Bowen, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, displays an iPad science app during a conference last year in Augusta. Starting this fall, the state will no longer give Maine school systems money to help pay their first-year teachers a state-mandated $30,000 a year.

Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen merits praise for inclusively and thoroughly developing the state’s application for flexibility from certain elements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The waiver application includes input from an online survey, four education department working groups and many public forums. The document submitted Sept. 6 to the U.S. Department of Education represents a constructive collaboration of Maine Department of Education staff, school board members, administrators, teachers, parents and legislators.

It’s rare to achieve such strong consensus among groups that often find themselves on opposite sides of the negotiating table or the political divide. That consensus grew from the shared acknowledgment that federal standards established as part of the No Child Left Behind Act are unworkable and force school districts to engage in resource-sapping “busy work” in efforts to meet unattainable standards.

The next focus for a collaborative approach to constructive change within Maine’s education community should be educator evaluations. The Legislature earlier this year passed LD 1858, which requires local school districts to implement performance evaluations for teachers and principals.

The Maine Education Association, the union that represents public school teachers, opposed the legislation. However, in addressing the issue as part of the flexibility package, the union’s president, Lois Kilby-Chesley, acknowledged that professional reviews are coming and offered her vision for how the performance appraisal process should work: “You will see educators and principals working together to raise standards of each individual school.”

LD 1858 calls for local school districts to formulate their own evaluation methods in compliance with Maine law and subject to approval by the Department of Education. That’s where cooperation similar to that seen in crafting the flexibility waiver will be critical.

The flexibility application envisions a system that assigns responsibility for ensuring student progress to local administrators with support and — only as needed — intervention from the Maine Department of Education.

A similar approach should apply to educator performance evaluations. Just as No Child Left Behind’s “one-size-fits-all” list of suggested remedies fails to help leaders of local school districts correct problems inherent to their districts, a similarly rigid performance measurement system would tilt the focus from improving public education to labor-management struggles.

Paul Stearns, president of the Maine School Superintendents Association, argues persuasively that teachers of subjects such as art and special education must be measured differently than those who teach English and math. Teachers who contribute to learning environments that promote sustained, measurable progress ought not be penalized because their students’ test scores don’t provide a clear comparison, which is one of the bases for the waiver request.

The Maine Educator Effectiveness Council, a group of educators, school board members, business people and consultants impaneled by the Maine Department of Education in May, must report its recommendations for educator evaluation criteria to Bowen by Nov. 1.

In addition to evaluating information from outside sources such as the school system in Montgomery County, Md., which has used an educator evaluation program since 1997, the council should model the cooperative, outreach-based process used to craft the flexibility waiver.

An educator evaluation process that establishes broad state standards but ensures local authority over school district employees, supplemented by professional development support from the state, would align with the framework laid out in the waiver application and represent real progress toward best practices in public education.

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