May 13, 2013

Maine Voices: Attack on new school grading system fails to take facts into account

Ignoring low-income pupils' ability to achieve, a recent editorial calls on the state to water down the system.

By STEPHEN BOWEN

AUGUSTA - The Portland Press Herald's May 2 editorial ("Our View: LePage's education policy earns him an F"), in which the newspaper opined that Gov. LePage and I have "wasted" our time in office and that we should be "ashamed" of the A-F grading system we recently developed, is disappointing for a number of reasons.

First, the newspaper would like readers to believe that the central governing principle of the administration's "divisive" education initiatives has been to "create alternatives to traditional public schools"

It's true that the administration pursued the creation of public charter schools, a piece of legislation enacted with broad bipartisan support, and supports additional school choice options for Maine's students.

Additionally, though, the administration has pushed for rigorous academic standards and high school diploma requirements, enacted landmark legislation on teacher and principal effectiveness and launched a 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 launched a statewide council to address needs in 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, the administration had been moving forward with an aggressive and ambitious education agenda, the vast majority of which has won bipartisan support. This work hardly constitutes time wasted, as the Press Herald would like readers to think.

Second, the Press Herald seems to feel that the new A-F grading system suffers from a fatal flaw because it does not discriminate between schools in more affluent areas of the state and those in less affluent areas. The paper seems to suggest that the department should have developed a grading system with one set of performance standards for wealthy areas and a second, presumably lower, set of standards for poorer areas.

Developing such a two-tier system was never a consideration for the administration, however, for the simple reason that we don't share the Press Herald's view that students in less affluent communities are necessarily destined, by virtue of where they live, to struggle in school.

There is, of course, a correlation, well supported in the research and illustrated by the grading system, between the income and education levels of families and the academic achievement of their children. There are also plenty of examples, however, in Maine and across the nation, of schools in very poor communities achieving extraordinary results for the students they serve.

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

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.

The Press Herald would evidently prefer that we simply inflate the achievement grades of schools in less affluent areas, and readers need only reflect upon the last sentence of the Press Herald's editorial to understand why.

In it, the newspaper takes the position that unless "the administration gets serious about attacking both the causes and effects of poverty," the grades for schools in the state's poorer communities "should not be expected to improve."

So the Press Herald's message to schools in Maine's poorer communities is, evidently, that the students they serve simply can't be made to learn as much as their wealthier peers. That demoralizing view is not one we share.

Instead, Gov. LePage, who rose from a childhood of homelessness and domestic abuse to be elected governor of the state, believes as I do that all students, regardless of the challenges they face, can learn, and that schools in even the poorest communities can transform the lives of the children they serve.

We believe, in short, that all students can succeed and all schools can succeed as well. That is why we put forward a school grading system that doesn't make excuses, and that is why we have already begun working with schools all across Maine to help them improve.

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

 

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