AUGUSTA, Maine — Local involvement and the premise that rewarding progress works better as a learning tool than punishing failure guide the latest move to reform public education in Maine.

The effort enters a new phase Sept. 6 when the Maine Department of Education submits a waiver application for flexibility in meeting federal standards. The application to the U.S. Department of Education proposes Maine-specific ways to meet requirements of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was originally enacted in 1965 and became known as the No Child Left Behind Act during President George W. Bush’s administration.

The request for flexibility follows Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen’s January 2012 release of a strategic plan and reflects input from an online survey, four working groups, months of meetings and public forums.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has granted similar waivers to 33 other states.

The flexibility waiver request represents a part of Bowen’s plan to place more of an emphasis on the needs of individual learners, according to a Maine Department of Education summary of the flexibility request.

That new system would rely less on national test scores and more on Maine educators to measure student achievement. What students do in the classroom to show that they’re mastering skills needed for college or a career would determine whether they and their schools are making adequate progress.

Approval of the waiver would free Maine school districts from the No Child Left Behind framework, “with its overemphasis of single-snapshot-in-time testing, its failure to recognize learning growth, its inscrutable processes for the recognition of schools and its unworkable system of mandated interventions,” the summary states.

Superintendents, teachers and education consultants in Maine seem to agree with that assessment. If approved, the waiver would “give school systems relief from this onerous law,” said Paul Stearns, president of the Maine School Superintendents Association and superintendent of School Administrative District 4 in the Guilford region.

The Maine Department of Education seeks to make three key changes: in how it assesses its schools and students, how state funding and resources are directed to underperforming districts and what defines effective education. In practice, that means holding local school districts more accountable for achieving learning goals, establishing a new system for allocating state resources to schools that require intervention and instituting professional evaluations of teachers and principals.

From an administrative perspective, the waiver would allow the Maine Department of Education “to direct support and resources where they’re needed most, which is schools that have demonstrated that they haven’t made progress with their students,” said Mark Kostin of the Great Schools Partnership. Kostin is working with Maine Department of Education officials to complete the flexibility waiver request.

Conversely, schools with students who are making measurable progress — but not at a rate that keeps pace with increasingly escalating No Child Left Behind benchmarks — would no longer be subject to federal sanctions that Maine educators say waste time and divert resources.

No Child Left Behind’s “one-size-fits-all” approach penalizes schools because small student subgroups fell short of national standards, Stearns and Kostin said. The waiver aims to provide local school officials with “a much greater variety of permissible ways to improve,” Kostin said.

For instance, the No Child Left Behind Act requires districts with schools that failed to meet some element of federal Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks to offer parents a choice of enrolling their children in another school. But, as Kostin points out, most Maine school districts are so small or rural that there aren’t other schools from which to choose, especially at the high school level.

The waiver would free school districts from going through the motions of offering choice that doesn’t exist, Kostin said. Instead, it would encourage local officials to seek solutions to problems identified at their schools, he said, and the ability to achieve steady progress would factor more heavily in measuring school districts’ accountability.

“I believe we have a better chance of sound decisions being made if we make them at a state and local level,” Stearns said.

“Rather than establish an arbitrary proficiency rate for all schools that continuously increases and potentially penalizes schools that make progress but fail to meet the statewide uniform goal, Maine will establish annual proficiency rates for every school based on the past performance of its students so that ambitious, yet achievable improvement is expected across the state,” the waiver application summary states.

Stearns agrees, suggesting that education in Maine could suffer by placing too much emphasis on adhering to a standardized model.

“The more we latch onto and embrace a national agenda, the more likely we will be to dip to that level,” he said.

The waiver application stipulates that schools receiving Title I funds with the 5 percent lowest School Accountability Index scores (23 out of 450) will receive “the most comprehensive and intensive [state] supports and will be designated as ‘priority’ schools.”

How best to allocate local funding will be up to each district. During an Aug. 20 online presentation about the waiver request, Bowen acknowledged that some local school systems will struggle to find the resources for that.

“It goes straight to the resource question,” he said. “Where are some of the resources that we can find to turn around these schools? As we move some legislation forward, that will be one of the discussions.”

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, a member of the Legislature’s Education Committee, said one way to make best use of limited resources would be to ensure that training materials created with funding directed at struggling districts be made available to all school systems.

State education officials must “ensure that all teachers have access that I believe will be incredibly powerful information about best practices in our classrooms,” he said.

Impact in schools

In the classroom, the flexibility waiver would manifest itself with greater emphasis on measuring individual progress to evaluate students and educators.

Instead of forcing public school districts to conform to a system of national benchmarks, the waiver would push Maine toward a “growth model” of measuring students’ performance, according to Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, the union that represents public school teachers.

“In the past, when we compared scores, we said this group of third-graders didn’t score as well as a past group, not recognizing that every group is different,” Kilby-Chesley said. “There’s a line you would expect them to follow, going higher and higher. That’s the expectation for individuals and groups.”

Replacing an unrealistic No Child Left Behind mandate that 100 percent of students be proficient in English and math by 2014, based on standardized test results, with a system that gauges progress by individual students’ abilities to meet a core set of standards from year to year would be an improvement, Kilby-Chesley said.

The waiver request does not signal an abandonment of standards in favor of completely individualized learning.

“We’re not saying we’re going to give every kid their own goal,” Kostin said. “We’re not lowering the bar or expectations for kids. We want all kids to graduate from high school and be ready for college or a career.”

“Standards have to be clearly defined,” Stearns said.

To that end, the Maine Department of Education continues to revise the Maine Learning Results and refine what the summary of the waiver request describes as “clear, ambitious and rigorous learning standards.” For the 2012-13 academic year, the department will replace the Maine Learning Results standards for English language arts and mathematics with Common Core State Standards, which are nationally developed learning expectations.

To provide the foundation for student and educator assessments, Kilby-Chesley said, parents can “expect that there will be a lot more data collection going on” in schools.

That data will lead to “improved whole-class instruction” because it will foster “more meaningful professional development so teachers can better engage with all kids and offer more responsive instruction to students who are struggling,” Kostin said. “One of the specific activities on the intervention and support side is to help schools be more effective in using data to improve instruction. … We have to be able to help educators make sense of that data.”

Kilby-Chesley and Stearns both expressed concerns that data collection might siphon energy from instruction.

“We’re spending an awful lot of time testing and not enough time teaching content,” Stearns said. “Absolutely, we have to use data to know where we are, but we can’t become slaves to it.”

“We can’t be so fixated on data that we often don’t have the next steps, resources and programs ready to go so that teachers and students can use this data in real time to help improve outcomes,” Alfond said.

Evaluation of teachers and principals — formerly a contentious issue — drew little resistance from teachers or administrators, Stearns and Kilby-Chesley said. To help prepare the flexibility waiver request, a 16-member Educator Effectiveness Council has met regularly to discuss how to implement educator evaluations as required earlier this year by the Legislature’s passage of LD 1858, according to Kilby-Chesley.

“I don’t think anybody disagrees on the need for evaluations, but how it will be implemented remains a question,” Stearns said, noting that using test scores as a measure of student progress, as included in LD 1858, would not be fair to art, special needs and other teachers in subjects where progress is more difficult to quantify.

“You will see educators and principals working together to raise standards of each individual school,” Kilby-Chesley said of her goal for the professional evaluation process.

Kilby-Chesley praised state education officials for engaging a broad range of stakeholders in formulating the flexibility waiver request, but she urged more involvement from parents.

“The best thing parents can do is know their teachers, counselors, principals and superintendent and make their judgments based on their experiences and what their children are learning in school, not necessarily something that comes out on a chart,” Stearns said.

Robert Long is a political analyst for the BDN.