AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislative Democrats said Wednesday that they will unveil a new school ranking system by next year to replace the one introduced by the LePage administration last week, though Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said that by then a slew of new initiatives to help failing schools will be well underway.
Democrats, led by Education Committee co-chairmen Sen. Rebecca Millett of South Portland and Rep. Bruce MacDonald of Boothbay, continued their assault on LePage’s A-F grading system, calling it punitive, simplistic and insulting to educators.
“This A-through-F grading system is flawed, it shames, it stigmatizes and embarrasses,” said Millett, who was flanked by two dozen Democratic lawmakers during a Wednesday afternoon press conference at the State House.
“Parents, teachers and students have rejected [LePage’s] system of shame and blame,” said MacDonald.
Though they said details of their system would be determined by a group of stakeholders over the next several months, the Democrats insisted that it will draw a more complete picture of school performance than LePage’s formula, which relies on standardized test scores and graduation rates. That system, which graded schools on a bell curve, gave about half of Maine schools a grade of C with the rest split roughly evenly among A’s and B’s, then D’s and F’s. Democrats said their rankings will not follow a bell curve.
Meanwhile, Bowen has said that new grades for high schools will be released this fall — months before the Democrats release a system — and elementary schools will follow suit in spring 2014.
The Democrats’ plan would involve culling information and opinions from school boards, educators and parents about a school’s climate; take into account college and armed forces attendance and attainment rates; and contain a mechanism that compares schools with “peer group” schools in communities of similar demographics and challenges. The plan will also start from a lower bar on graduation rates, basing that measure on a 95 percent rate, rather than a 100 percent threshold that some think is unattainable.
“It will be based on student progress, not a snapshot in time, like standardized tests,” said Millett. “What we are doing here today is not just developing a good evaluation tool. We have to look at what’s next. We have to look at how to help our underperforming schools and how to provide the best education for all our schools, not just a select few.”
MacDonald suggested that a school ranking system should be developed by numerous interested parties, as opposed to within the Department of Education, as LePage’s was.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, agreed there should be collaboration.
“If they’re going to put together a stakeholders group it ought to include Republicans. It ought to include the executive branch,” said Fredette. “We need to be doing this important job together rather than trying to play politics in a tit for tat.”
Asked whether Republicans are willing to find a way to increase funding for schools despite slack state revenues, Fredette said he wishes that were a possibility.
“I think education is the most important priority because it’s the great equalizer in our society,” he said. “We have a DHHS system which is really mandated by the federal government which crowds out the opportunity to expand funding to issues like education.”
Bowen said during a press conference immediately after the Democrats’ that he hadn’t seen the details of the Democrats’ plan but said siphoning so many different measures into an easily understandable ranking system would prove challenging.
Bowen focused on what the Department of Education will do to assist schools that are struggling the most. Among the initiatives he discussed Wednesday were hiring consultants to help schools in specific areas, creating collaborative relationships between school districts so they can share and implement best practices, and providing teacher and administrator training opportunities.
He said the department intends to contact every school that received a D or an F in the coming days in an effort to complete a statewide needs analysis. Bowen also said the department will begin to host regional conferences and frequent Web-based seminars on issues. But all the changes that are planned are not just for schools. Bowen said he intends to change the mission of the Department of Education, beginning with the creation of a sort of headquarters in Augusta where school improvement efforts will be tracked.
“Right now, I’ll admit, we’re still too siloed of an organization,” he said. “We’ll have folks on one side of the floor who have talked to a district and word of that doesn’t get to the other side of the floor. We need to do a better job of pulling that data together in a way that we can make some connections for school districts and show them some support. … Our goal is to actually pretty fundamentally change the nature of the work that this department does. We need to be going out every single day and working specifically with schools and districts in a way that we’re meeting their needs specifically.”