PORTLAND – Maine recently hosted U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and, as co-chairman of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, I was honored to be present for his visit.

Duncan came to Maine to celebrate the beginning of the school year, our dedicated teachers, our successful expeditionary learning model and he noted, “One of my favorite aspects of my job is identifying what’s working in education today.”

The secretary visited our state despite the fact that, unfortunately, Maine’s Race to the Top grant application to the U.S. Department of Education was not successful.

While I was disappointed by this result, the initiative spurred some of the boldest education reforms in Maine in many years, such as adopting the Common Core Standards in math and English, encouraging innovative schools and endorsing models to assess principals and teachers by using various student achievement data.

And for the first time ever, residents, legislators and policy makers have a road map of the Maine Department of Education’s plans for the future.

In this heated campaign season, many politicians and advocates are bemoaning our Race to the Top loss and touting various ideas for fixing Maine’s education system. Sadly, some are misrepresenting our education spending and student results and this politicized rhetoric is damaging to our education system.

Let’s look at where Maine students are, compared to the nation. The National Assessment of Educational Progress is the premier benchmark and tests randomly in every state.

It shows Maine 4th graders rank 9th in math and 19th in reading. In 8th grade, students rank 20th in math and 14th in reading.

In both grades, Maine students are doing better — often much better — than the national average.

Finally, Maine is graduating 79.1 percent of our K-12 students, compared to 74.9 percent nationally (in the 2007-2008 school year).

Yes, we need to keep improving, but I am disappointed that some are unwilling to acknowledge what our state is doing well and, instead, are pushing questionable ideas like merit pay and charter schools.

Merit pay would base teacher salaries on narrow measures of student performance.

Studies have shown little evidence that this incentive creates better outcomes. “What Matters Most: Teaching for America,” a report by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, stated: “Attempts to link student test scores to reward teachers and schools have led to counterproductive incentives…”

Teachers are a major component of educational improvement, but equally important is strong school leadership, parental involvement and equitable education funding.”

Charter schools are another seemingly appealing idea, with the promise of choice, deregulation and competition. However, study after study shows mixed, and sometimes worse results for similarly situated kids. Also, creating more schools, more administration, and more bus routes is counterproductive to our state’s law promoting greater administrative efficiency. We must all work together to strengthen our public school system so all kids can learn, not create more duplication.

These are just two examples of the ideas being touted by some that are distractions from the real reforms we need. Both of these initiatives are controversial, are not evidence-based, have mixed results and, for the most part, are not coming from parents, teachers or administrators.

They are predominately coming from politicians and foundations who want to turn public education into a private marketplace. In other states these initiatives have created hostility distrust, and a tiered system that has widened educational inequality rather than improving education for all students.

Here are some of the high leverage reforms that can ensure all Maine kids, no matter where they live, are prepared for the 21st century:

Create common standards for all pre-kindergarten students and implement a statewide program for 4-year-olds.

Work with our teachers to establish the highest quality curriculum and instruction standards for every grade.

Implement existing state law promoting multiple pathways so every child can learn the standards in a way that fits their needs and individual learning styles.

Create a positive accountability system for teachers and administrators that takes a variety of qualitative and quantitative measures into account.

Reforming education is one of the biggest challenges we face. While top-down implementation of ideologically-driven reforms with little evidence of success may get headlines, it will not strengthen our education system, and Maine’s students will pay the price.

 

– Special to the Telegram