March 10, 2013

Maine Voices: Look south to improve Maine schools

High-achieving Massachusetts has a statewide assessment system, with high standards and results tied to graduation.

By JEFFREY SHEDD

CAPE ELIZABETH – At a news conference earlier this winter ("LePage blasts charter school commission, teachers union," Jan. 10), Gov. LePage shared his belief that Maine schools are failing and Maine's educators don't care about kids.

While I don't dispute that educational progress in Maine has been slow, state educational policymakers must own their contribution to this problem.

I refer to the failed educational policies of the early 2000s that are now largely being repeated. The previous failures cost Maine kids one lost decade of faster progress. We are on the verge of repeating those failures.

Let me be specific. In the late 1990s, Maine's students were close to the top in American educational performance.

At that time, intending to raise standards, Maine required each school district to create a "comprehensive local assessment system" tied to graduation. Maine's educators worked tirelessly to comply.

Under any such system, of course, each locality would tend to create assessments allowing its own students to graduate. The "comprehensive local assessment system" remedy was leading us in the wrong direction. Eventually, the state scrapped the idea.

During that decade of experiment, other states' students leapfrogged Maine's in academic achievement. That was particularly true of Massachusetts' students, who, starting behind Maine's at the beginning of the 1990s, shot past ours by the end of the 2000s.

What was Massachusetts' secret? Rigorous academic standards; a statewide assessment system, with score cutoffs that truly challenged the state's teachers and students; and results tied to graduation. And lots of support for struggling students.

At his news conference, Gov. LePage bemoaned the absence of educational leaders with spines. Massachusetts' educational leaders demonstrated spine. They endured protests. The commissioner of education was burned in effigy.

I wish we would learn from Massachusetts.

We have learned at least one thing: Maine needs rigorous academic standards. Maine, along with more than 40 other states, has adopted the Common Core academic standards.

Working in partnership with other states, Maine is developing a common assessment linked to those standards, the Smarter Balanced assessment.

The catch is: This assessment won't count for students. It will only count for schools. Do you want to guess how seriously students will take an assessment that doesn't count? Do you want to guess how little leverage it will afford Maine's educators working with struggling students?

Under Maine's plan, how will we determine how students are doing? Well (and I have a hard time believing I'm writing this), it's a comprehensive local assessment system. We are mandating that every school district create a portfolio of home-grown assessments to determine graduation. There will be as many different portfolios as districts.

There is another way.

Last fall, the governor wrote a letter to Maine principals castigating us for how badly Maine schools are failing. To prove his point, he cited an article by Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University economist.

In his article, Hanushek reports on the progress of American students compared with students around the world. According to Hanushek's research, America's students during the past two decades have made comparatively little progress. And Maine's students have made just about the slowest progress of all.

Other parts of Hanushek's article, however, identify states whose students made faster progress than Maine's.

Indeed, Massachusetts' students were among those making the fastest progress anywhere in the world.

Not only did Massachusetts' students make fast progress. Their students' achievement levels, too, were at the top among the states. Reflecting on these successes, education author Karin Chenoweth concluded: "If all American fourth- and eighth-grade kids did as well in math and science as they do in Massachusetts, we still wouldn't be in Singapore's league but we'd be giving Japan and Chinese Taipei a run for their money."

Despite evidence of the successful Massachusetts model, Maine is heading in a different direction.

In fact, every New England state but one is working on a comprehensive local assessment system plan. What's the lone New England holdout? Yes, Massachusetts.

I don't pretend to be certain that the Massachusetts solution is right for Maine. What I do know is it has a phenomenal record of success -- whereas the model we're currently devising has already failed in Maine. A model mandating each Maine school district to create its own assessment system tied to graduation is a poor bet to lead to college and career-readiness for all.

Now I know that Maine's educational policymakers care about kids. I know that I do -- and that many hardworking educators across the state do, too. I hope we give serious consideration to the Massachusetts example before Maine kids lose another decade.

Jeffrey Shedd is a resident of Cape Elizabeth and principal of Cape Elizabeth High School. The views expressed here, however, are his own.

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