AUGUSTA, Maine — Responding to a report on student achievement in U.S. public schools that showed Maine students making “almost no gains” over the last 20 years, Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday called on educators to “step up” their efforts.
The report, “Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance,” was produced by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. It was released Monday, prompting a response the following day by Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.
Bowen said the study results were disappointing, “but they are consistent with what we have been saying for some time — while Maine’s test scores are high for the nation, we are just not moving the needle, and as this study makes clear, other states are making considerably more progress. The status quo is simply not working.”
In a statement issued Wednesday, the governor repeated that observation: “Clearly, the status quo in education is not working.”
LePage also noted that Maine spent on average $4,000 more per student in 2009 than it did in 1990, above average among U.S. states. Yet in the period from 1992 to this year, Maine’s test score averages dropped from third highest of the 41 states participating in the study to twelfth.
Fourth-grade reading and math scores in Maine showed the smallest gains of any state, according to the governor’s statement.
“Despite some of the highest state spending per student, Maine’s schools are not meeting the needs of Maine’s kids,” the governor said. “This report proves that more money does not equate to better results and we must renew our focus through reform. We must support our teachers, improve their effectiveness and hold underperforming schools accountable.”
The governor and commissioner reiterated their emphasis on the tools they believe will drive improvement.
“The only way we will climb the ladder is to implement meaningful change such as school choice for students and families,” the governor said.
LePage also highlighted his and Bowen’s efforts to improve teacher evaluation systems which will be “tough, fair and meaningful ways to measure teacher effectiveness.” The plan is to “then use those evaluations in making decisions about teacher compensation, ways to help teachers improve, and sometimes, to get rid of teachers who can’t perform.”
Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, the organization that represents teachers, said Wednesday that she joined with the governor in wanting to see student achievement rise.
“We all would like it if the growth was steeper,” she said. “But what [the report] doesn’t mention is that we’re still 13th out of the 50 states” in achievement. “I think it’s a misinterpretation of the full picture,” she said of the report.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress test which provided data for the Harvard report is just one test of many, Kilby-Chesley said.
“It isn’t given to all students,” she said. “It’s one day’s snapshot of what happens in public school.” The test, according to the NAEP website, is administered to fourth- and eighth-grade students by states.
But the governor’s statement asserted that “in report after report, Maine’s test scores remain flat,” which is consistent with Maine’s data on student achievement.
Maine, along with West Virginia and New Mexico, increased education spending by more than the national average, but “the results were pathetic,” LePage said. “Student achievement scores are barely rising.”
The MEA supports changes to the teacher evaluation process, Kilby-Chesley said. The MEA is represented on a committee charged with improving evaluations. The committee includes superintendents, Maine Department of Education officials and businesspeople, and it will meet Friday, she said.
“We’ve always supported clear, fair evaluations,” she said, “that are not based on hearsay or on one principal’s interests. There has to be a clear rubric.”
The best approach, Kilby-Chesley believes, focuses on a professional development model.
“It’s not about getting rid of bad teachers,” she said. “It’s about giving support to our teachers in the classroom.”
Kilby-Chesley said responsibility for the success or failure of public schools lies beyond those organizations.
“Parents need to take responsibility, school districts need to take responsibility, superintendents need to, and the Legislature needs to take responsibility,” she said.
The governor’s statement also referenced his and Bowen’s consistent push for more charter schools and more postsecondary options.
“School choice means a choice of opportunities, including access to virtual schools and more access to early college programs for high school students,” LePage said.
Michael Burnham, assistant executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, had not seen the governor’s statement Wednesday afternoon and declined to comment. A phone message left with the Maine School Management Association was not immediately returned.