August 26, 2013

A-F ratings for schools lack incentives, influence

Without assistance or funding from the state, the report-card grading system has had minimal impact, Maine’s education leaders say.

By SUSAN McMILLAN Kennebec Journal

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Heather Perry is superintendent of Unity-based Regional School Unit 3, which had several schools with low grades. "We already had plans in place to improve those achievement results, and we're not deviating from those plans," she said.

David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

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A week after unveiling the A-F system, LePage's administration submitted a bill, L.D. 1510, to provide assistance to struggling schools and to revoke a school's approval and give its students school choice if the school failed to adopt or follow an improvement plan.

The bill, which was rejected by the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee along party lines, did not specify how schools would be identified as needing improvement. Opponents worried that the A-F grades would be a factor.

The Legislature also removed $3 million that LePage included in his proposed two-year budget for an Office of School Accountability within the Department of Education.

"There was this line-item reference to the accountability office, and there was no explanation forthcoming as to what that actually meant, how the accountability office was going to work, how it was going to be staffed, what the money was going to be used for," said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, the education committee's Senate chairwoman. "Based on that, we did not feel comfortable approving $3 million."

Department of Education spokeswoman Samantha Warren said it's understandable that legislators wanted more information, and the department has spent the summer gathering feedback from schools about how to support school improvement.

"We didn't make the case as well as we could," Warren said. "And frankly, we couldn't make the case because we didn't have responses from schools about what they needed."

Both L.D. 1510 and the accountability office were part of an attempt to expand school improvement efforts beyond the federal initiatives that have been in place since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001.

Under that law, and the waiver Maine recently received from some of its provisions, standardized test results and progress are reported for all schools, but only Title I schools are eligible for federal assistance or subject to consequences if they fail to meet targets.

About 65 percent of Maine schools, mostly at the elementary and middle school levels, are part of Title I, which provides additional federal support to schools with significant numbers of low-income students.

All Maine schools would have been eligible for help from the Office of School Accountability.

Warren said they would have used the money to hire staff to help schools develop improvement plans, offer instructional training and coaching, provide grants to schools and districts and bring in another person to help schools analyze data to identify problems and solutions.

"Without that funding, we still intend to be a statewide support system to schools to complement the statewide accountability system, but we'll just need to do so with existing resources," Warren wrote in an email.

With less funding available, the department is focusing on schools that received a D or an F, also referred to as underperforming schools.

Near the end of last school year, the department started sending staff members to interview administrators at underperforming schools about their existing improvement initiatives, professional development happening this summer, the schools' needs and what the Department of Education could do to help.

'LOOK AT YOUR DARN DATA'

In interviews, some school administrators were critical of the grading system because it lacks assistance.

Some asked for things that could be expensive, like regional training sessions, department analysis of data to be provided to school staff, and more funding for public schools in general.

The most common requests, though, were for information. That would be relatively inexpensive and fits the department's function, as described by Warren, as a connector and facilitator. Administrators asked for the department to identify best practices supported by research and to help them find and communicate with demographically similar schools that are having success.

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