Some would argue that Maine’s new commissioner of education has some holes in his resume.
Steven Bowen has never been a principal or a superintendent and he has never managed a large organization.
But rather than being concerned about what Bowen hasn’t done, we are excited about the experience he does have, which should help him lead the state’s schools toward reform.
Most importantly, he worked as a social studies teacher at the middle school level in Virginia and Maine for 10 years.
He has also spent almost that long as a state legislator and think-tank analyst, studying the system and trying to apply what he saw in the classroom to state policy.
In the end, the success of the education system boils down to how well teachers connect with students, and improving those relationships will be what makes a difference.
Maine’s educators have a lot to be proud of — the school system is not failing, as it is sometimes hyperbolically accused of doing. But there is evidence that it is not succeeding anywhere near well enough.
Too many students drop out and too many who stay in school and come out with diplomas are still unprepared for college-level work. States that once lagged behind us have introduced education reforms that have helped them surpass Maine in test scores. As a state we pay about $1 billion a year for public schools, but we are not getting the right results.
Bowen understands that it all comes down to teachers — how they are prepared, how they are evaluated and how they are paid.
There is ample data to show that the quality of teachers makes a difference in how much their students achieve. Teachers who excel should be rewarded and encouraged.
Teachers who lag behind need training and support. If that doesn’t work, they should be encouraged to find another line of work.
That process should start by measuring what teachers do, and should include an evaluation process that tracks student improvement as one benchmark of success.
This is not about beating up on teachers, but recognizing their value.
As a former teacher, Bowen will know this, and that makes him well-suited to the job of education commissioner.