September 1, 2013

Our View: School grading system gets an F: Time for state to try something else

Education officials know what's wrong, but they need more help to fix the problems.

(Continued from page 1)

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Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen unveils the state’s A-F grading system at the Maine State Library on May 1. Struggling schools need support as they work to improve performance.

2013 Kennebec Journal File Photo/Joe Phelan

Regardless, $3 million wouldn't have gone very far, considering 68 schools received D's and 67 F's.

The LePage administration also wanted to provide assistance through L.D. 1510, which would have allowed the education commissioner to determine schools in need of improvement, and allow school choice in cases where a prescribed improvement plan was not followed. It was rightly rejected in committee by Democrats who feared the flawed A-F system would be used as the standard.


The grading system may not have much of a future. It was created by the governor's office, not enacted by law. LePage's two mainstream opponents for 2014, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and Eliot Cutler, have criticized the program and both said they would end it if they were elected.

But a grading system of some kind could work. The governor is correct that an A-F system is easy to understand.

After LePage's plan was unveiled, the Democrats offered their own, one which includes factors such as peer comparisons and rates of free and reduced-price lunch. A system could also grade on a series of subjects individually -- science, history, arts and language, for instance, in addition to reading and math -- to provide a more complete view of the school.

However, schools are for the most part aware of where they are falling short. The state should focus its resources on giving schools the tools necessary to make improvements. The Department of Education did start this effort, in the form of web-inars presented in June on topics such as the practices of low-income but high-performing schools, although the department was unable to say how many schools took advantage of the series.


A spokeswoman also said the department spent the summer speaking with schools about how to support improvement.

That work should have been done instead of the hasty and unfunded implementation of an ineffective grading system.

The department should crunch the hard data so that educators at schools falling behind in one area or another can connect with their counterparts at schools doing those things well.

The department should foster a culture of cooperation that celebrates successful programs, and shows how they can be duplicated. When necessary, the state should fund targeted professional development.

A lot of the responsibility falls locally, too, where accountability for performance, dedication and innovation has to run from school boards to administrators to teachers and staff.

There is no doubt that too many Maine schools are falling short in some way. Those schools need help addressing those faults with full consideration of the challenges they face, not criticism based on factors largely out of their control.


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