For the past 27 years, I have worked as an administrator in Maine’s public schools. I served as a local director for Child Development Services, the agency that serves children with disabilities from birth to age 5; a director of special education in five school districts; a Title 1 No Child Left Behind coordinator; a gifted and talented program coordinator; and an assistant superintendent. Most recently, I have served as a superintendent of schools.
I earned my master’s degree and a certificate of advanced studies in educational leadership at the University of Southern Maine. I have also served as a school board member in my own town of Readfield.
What that resume of rich experience and formal study doesn’t reveal is just how unprepared some of us are to fight the tide of an extraordinarily dense status quo in the system. There are things you could observe in any school system that just didn’t work well at all for kids, but that folks would resist attempts to change.
There are staff who are marvelously effective and successful at their craft, but we pay them the same as those who never should have made it past their probationary period. Ditto for principals, superintendents and other administrators. As in any industry, you can be “successful” and enjoy longevity if you fly under the radar and don’t fight the tide. That, of course, doesn’t translate to better outcomes for kids, but I’m afraid that student success is simply not the top priority for some staff and board members.
I’ll share a few observations and proposals that we should all be able to endorse:
— A parent’s level of educational attainment ( particularly the mother’s, according to research) is the greatest indicator of a student’s success or failure in school. Parental attitudes toward their own school experiences and the degree of parents’ involvement with their children’s education are equally significant.
— A parent’s socioeconomic status is directly linked to school success. There’s a reason that Cape Elizabeth does so well on state and national testing.
— All students are not endowed with identical ability levels: About 13.6 percent of our population has an IQ between 70 and 85, with 2.3 percent under 70. Ability levels are pretty much inborn and do not typically change after age 7. And ability levels are directly related to traditional academic performance. Our curriculum and assessments are all geared to the average IQ of 100 and seem to ignore the kids on either side of the spectrum, including our very gifted students.
— Public schools have little, if any, influence over the first three factors, but we can change our curriculums to reflect the needs of all students, not just the “average” ones.
— Great teaching and highly effective teachers make all the difference in the world to kids who are on the margins.
— Great, highly effective principals make all the difference in the world to a school’s overall success. They can and do make or break the school.
— We must always seek a balance in the school budget process that advocates for student needs while also respecting the taxpayers’ ability to fund it all. I think we’re out of balance in assuming our budgets will always pass at the polls. Unless we’ve truly examined the status quo of what we fund year after year — often simply because “we’ve always done it that way” — how can we conclude we’ve offered an “honest” budget to the community? Transparency is much more than a buzzword.
As for solutions, they start with us, educators, being honest with ourselves. We need to be willing to change what’s not working, even if we’ve been doing it for ages.
— Recruit the best and the brightest teachers and administrators and pay them very, very well — as much per diem as the superintendent. We need to lose the ones who aren’t effective and convince them to seek another calling. Adopt a statewide teacher and administrator contract to get this started.
— Adopt mandatory pre-kindergarten in every school district and place significant emphasis and resources in the early years: pre-kindergarten through grade 4. If a student is still struggling by grade 5, he or she becomes more likely to give up. Struggling young students are just like you and me. They don’t want to keep bashing their heads against the same wall every year. They want to feel successful.
— Change the school funding formula to reflect the community’s average income, not just property values, in calculating what each school district’s taxpayers can pay locally. Property-rich towns with very low family incomes are getting the shaft, and that hurts students in ways that are simply unacceptable. If Maine commits to the 55 percent funding promised years ago, all of this will be possible. Do it.
— Don’t renew the contracts of ineffective teachers and administrators. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
— Don’t be afraid to change things up. Staff, particularly principals, should be routinely moved from school to school every five years. Fresh perspectives are invaluable. Teachers in every classroom should examine their approach and be willing to do things differently if what they’re now doing isn’t working. It’s OK.
— Abandon this inaccurate notion that all students will learn at the same rate and level. Science contradicts this silly premise, and it is really terribly snobby to think that every kid is a “senator’s son” or daughter.
— Finally, take the lead of Portland, or schools throughout Utah, and adopt foreign language immersion programs — Spanish or Chinese, for example — in kindergarten through grade 3. The rest of the world learns English using this method, and research has shown that bilingual learners are more engaged and more successful throughout their school careers. We know that the world will be even smaller 15 years from now than it is today, and our kids will need proficiency in a second language to navigate it. Wouldn’t this be the kind of gift we’d like to send our kids off with as they graduate in 2025 and beyond?
I’ve never been a supporter of the ineffective status quo in my career, and I have stuck my neck out in every position I’ve held. I finally had it cut off in my last position as superintendent of Regional School Unit 13 in the Rockland area, and I have learned much from that experience.
I learned a lot about people’s priorities and about my own flaws in delivering and effecting change. Whether I’m there or not, however, does not change the fact that the status quo is the most immutable force we face in public education. Everyone should be offering a little more of their neck than is comfortable and let the axe fall where it may. If what we’re doing for our students is working well, keep it up! If not, let’s be bold enough to let go of past practices and move forward with new ideas.
Lew Collins of Readfield is the former superintendent of Regional School Unit 13 in the Rockland area.