March 14, 2011

Researchers examine how schools make the grade

Teams visit 25 facilities statewide to see why some are cost-efficient and higher-performing.

By Kelley Bouchard
Staff Writer

GORHAM - A team from the Maine Education Policy Research Institute spent two days at Gorham High School last week, trying to figure out why it's one of 90 schools in the state that are both higher-performing and cost-efficient.

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Gorham High Principal Chris Record says a visit by researchers “was a great opportunity to learn more about our school.”

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Gorham freshmen Katherine O’Connor and Julie Pearson work on a project as technology instructor Randy Perkins looks on. The school is ranked as one of the top 90 in Maine.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

During two 10-hour visits, on Tuesday and Wednesday, team members observed 100 classes, conducting "walk-throughs" that lasted about three minutes each. They took note of class sizes, use of technology and level of student engagement. They pored over school records and assessed the condition of school facilities. They interviewed groups of students, parents and staff members.

"Just about every constituency you can imagine had some input," said Principal Chris Record. "It was a great opportunity to learn more about our school. I think we have some things we do well and some things we can do better. I'm looking forward to seeing the report."

Two-person research teams are visiting 25 schools across Maine to discern the qualities of higher-performing and cost-efficient schools, said David Silvernail, co-director of the research institute.

The visits started in December and are expected to conclude in early April.

The institute plans to report its overall findings this spring to the Legislature's education committee, which commissioned the study two years ago. More detailed reports will be issued to each of the 25 schools visited.

Most of the 25 are among 90 elementary, middle and high schools that the institute has identified as higher-performing and cost-efficient, Silvernail said. About one-quarter of the schools being visited are considered "typical," meaning they do some things well, but not all.

"Our charge is to promote the best practices so folks, if they're interested, don't have to reinvent the wheel," said state Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, a retired vocational education teacher who is chairman of the education committee.

Officials released only a partial list of the schools they are reviewing. A complete list of the top 90 and the 25 schools visited will be released when the institute presents its findings to the education committee, Silvernail said.

However, the teams have visited the following higher-performing and cost-efficient schools: Windham Middle, Kingfield Elementary, Strong Elementary, Carmel Elementary, William Cohen Middle in Bangor, Hampden Academy, Bowdoin Central, Bowdoinham Community, Winthrop Grade School and Dr. Levesque Elementary in Frenchville.

Typical schools visited include Sanford Middle, Windham High and Wagner Middle in Hampden.

In the coming weeks, research teams will visit Marshwood High in South Berwick and Scarborough High (both higher-performing and cost-efficient), as well as Brown Elementary in South Portland and one of two South Portland middle schools, yet to be determined (both typical).

Only nine high schools are on the list of 90 higher-performing and cost-efficient schools.

The institute, which is based at the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine, developed the list of 90 schools by comparing standardized test scores, graduation rates and spending levels among similar schools across the state.

The top 90 had test scores above the state average on annual proficiency exams in 2007-08 and 2008-09, Silvernail said. They also performed above expectation when students' socioeconomic backgrounds, special education needs and past performance were taken into account.

The top 90 also had graduation rates that were above the state average of about 80 percent and spending that was in line with the state average for similar schools.

"You could have two schools spending about the same amount of money and getting very different results," Silvernail said.

The visiting teams are being led by Richard Barnes, a retired USM education professor, and Kenneth Kunin, former principal of Deering High School in Portland, Silvernail said. The visiting teams weren't available for comment.

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