September 18, 2019
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Stephen Bowen: Every student deserves a great education

Ignoring a problem has never made it go away.

But that’s exactly what some are suggesting Gov. Paul LePage and the Maine Department of Education do after our new A-F grade system was announced last week. Those opposed to the state’s first true school accountability grading model argue that poor communities are treated unfairly, as though the grading system itself is responsible for the fact that schools in less affluent areas often struggle to perform as well as those in wealthier communities.

We knew, of course, that the data would show this to be the case, so we were left with a choice: Do we put forward a grading system that honestly reports how well students are doing, or do we establish some kind of two-tier system, where schools in poorer communities are held to a different set of standards than those in wealthier communities?

We chose the former — a system that holds all schools to the same set of standards — for the simple reason that we don’t believe, as some evidently do, that a student’s destiny is determined by demographics.

It is important to note, for instance, that all the negative press about how the new grading system is unfair to poor communities ignores the fact that there are a number of schools in poor communities across Maine that earned an A or B in our grading system. Nearly 80 percent of the students attending Phillips Elementary School in Franklin County, for instance, qualify for a free or reduced-price school lunch, yet the school earned an A for the high achievement of its students.

Our goal moving forward is to learn from Phillips Elementary and schools like it, and use those lessons learned to help other schools in less affluent areas achieve just as highly.

Every student is worthy of a great education no matter their socio-economic status. And that’s one of the reasons why Maine must continue with the grades.

As a dozen states have done before us, Maine adopted its own A-F grading system to help cast a light on the inadequacies in our education system and improve upon them.

Our grading evaluates proficiency, progress and, in Maine’s high schools, four- and five-year graduation rates. Schools in the state’s wealthiest towns and those in the poorest were equally measured because we believe all students hold equal promise to do great things in the classroom, their careers and our communities.

We must not overlook the good news this system brings with it. We can be proud that the majority of both Maine’s elementary and high schools rated average or above; 81 percent of elementary schools that were graded and 70 percent of the high schools earned an A, B or C. And we now have an online data center that provides a vast amount of useful information for administrators, teachers and parents designed with transparency in mind. We hope you will take advantage of it to learn more about your school and others across our state.

While there are those who will continue to attack the state’s grading system, our goal is to remain focused on how to make all of our schools better. The department is already at work analyzing the grading data, and, in the coming weeks and months, we will be reaching out to schools across the state, offering to help in any way we can.

Working to improve student outcomes has been our goal from the beginning. In the past two years alone, the administration has pushed for rigorous academic standards and high school diploma requirements, enacted landmark legislation on teacher and principal effectiveness, and launched the Center for Best Practices to help share the promising approaches on teaching and learning being used in schools across Maine.

The Department of Education launched a major literacy project last fall, which has led to the establishment of community-based literacy initiatives all over the state, and it launched a new statewide council to address needs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. We passed innovative schools legislation, empowered the state Board of Education to develop alternative pathways to teacher certification, and have been working with school administrators to address educational mandates and red tape.

In short, we have been moving ahead an aggressive and ambitious education agenda, the vast majority of which has won bipartisan support. The goal in all this is simple: Put students first, and equip them the best we can to take on the future.

There is nothing political about educating our students. Let’s show them we will all work together to make their futures the best they can be.

Stephen Bowen is a parent, former social studies teacher and the commissioner of the Maine Department of Education.

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