Gov. Paul LePage and Maine Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen just released the new, well-publicized A-F school grading system for Maine public schools. Last year the governor was impressed with the impact of this type of educational initiative in Florida, and he announced in February’s State of the State address the plan to adopt a similar system in Maine.
Florida’s grading system was one of the features of the governor’s Conference on Education in March where Florida officials touted the positive impact of the school grading. They reported that parents became more involved with their children’s education, and the state provided additional support for underperforming schools. Such efforts helped raise student performance and the grades of many schools.
Parents deserve a full understanding and accounting for the schools charged with educating their children. The governor decided on the A-F designation because of the belief that such grades provide the greatest clarity. Most everyone has a common understanding of the meaning of letter grades given students. Typically, F is a failure; D is barely passing; C is average; B is above average; and A is exemplary. But, what does it mean for an entire school to get one letter grade? The outcome from this initiative is far from certain.
One positive outcome, I hope, will include greater involvement of parents in the school and state support for teachers, coaches, afterschool and summer school programming, and other educational improvements. I will work to encourage this result. Lower graded schools must reinvigorate their relationships with parents, and the state of Maine must do much more than just “Scarlet Letter” schools and communities.
I fear, however, for the negative aspects of this school grading initiative. The process has already become politicized and was developed midstream without transparency and without sufficient targeted funding for school improvements. Furthermore, the grading process may stigmatize schools and communities where poverty, limited local resources and the impact of student transiency hamper student success. There remains a high correlation between the school grade and the socio-economic level of the student body.
The education department attempted to rectify some of the inherent issues around socio-economic differences across schools by having part of the grade relate to the student results of the bottom 25 percent in a school. This is a laudable attempt but falls short. Maine’s wealthy municipalities will never have an F school, and Maine’s poorest municipalities will never have an A school under the present formula.
I could cite other deficiencies of the new school grading system, but those criticisms will not be helpful to determine where we go from here. I offer three suggestions and hope that someone among the governor, the commissioner of education, members of the Cultural Affairs and Education Committee and our legislators will pursue these ideas further:
— The political process must find ways to reduce school truancy. Too many students, including at the elementary level, are missing 30, 40 and even 60 or more days of school per year. Student attendance is the strongest indicator of education success and directly impacts the school grade. While harsh, should we, for example, base welfare payments on student attendance? What about providing and requiring a Head Start program for every child from a home receiving state support?
— The overall magnitude of educational funding for Maine students is still based upon the socio-economic level of the local community. Federal Title 1 support is inadequate to bridge the difference between Maine’s rich and poor communities. Maine needs to be doing much more to provide the same opportunities to students from disadvantaged homes. I do not expect overwhelming support for this suggestion, but why not a statewide property tax to fund 100 percent of what is deemed the appropriate expenditure for education?
— The new grading system and related state support needs to be critiqued and improved in a way that makes it more transparent, timely and relevant to our schools. We need to do this in an atmosphere of objectivity and best-practices. Let’s use the next legislative session to refine the process and improve related funding in a way that could receive legislative support.
Every day there are students overcoming great challenges and succeeding in our schools because of committed, skilled teachers. I do not want these teachers to be discouraged by a school grade that tells a very incomplete picture. Likewise, every day there are parents actively involved with their local schools and working and succeeding in providing the best for their children. I do not want to see these parents become discouraged by a poor school grade. I hope that such a grade will lead to even more parent involvement in schools. I will be disappointed, but understand, if parents look elsewhere through school choice options or relocation. Such an outcome will further hamper efforts to improve a “failing” school.
Bill Webster is superintendent of Lewiston Public Schools.