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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"They're asking us to let them know what schools are working on, what projects, and which are being successful so that they can collaborate," said George Tucker, a school improvement specialist at the state Education Department. "Maybe we haven't asked that before, but we haven't really heard that before."

The Department of Education ran a series of four webinars in June, with topics including the characteristics of effective schools and the practices of low-income but high-performing schools. There were supposed to be more webinars at the end of the summer, but none have been announced.

The Department of Education is not able to access data about how many people have watched the school improvement webinars or used the Maine Education Data Warehouse, Warren said, although the data warehouse website did crash from being overloaded in the first two days after the report cards were released.

Tome said feedback from the administrator interviews will be used to choose topics for future webinars. Department staff are trying to dig into data and collaborate more across teams, just as they're advising local school leaders to do.

Money helps, department officials said, but so can focused planning or careful analysis of data to identify the root causes of low achievement.

"Lots of schools know what they need to do next, but there are barriers," Tucker said. "Some of them are simply financial, to getting those things done in a timely way. And others are a little more struggling to try to do 100 things at once, and they're just a little overwhelmed by all the things that they'd like to do rather than having a comprehensive, long-term plan for improvement."

There was immediate resistance to the A-F system -- some educators said it unfairly stigmatizes schools in poorer communities -- but Warren said even the mostly critical letters that administrators sent to parents shortly after the report cards were released showed new focus and urgency about improvement.

"The last paragraph would say, 'But they're right, and we know we've needed to change this, and we're going to change this,"' Warren said. "They're calling us to say, 'How can we change this?"'

Tome "has been screaming, jumping up and down on her soapbox for a decade, saying look at your darn data, and now they're looking," she said.

Warren said the department receives calls every day from school leaders seeking help with data.


Not all school districts have engaged with the Department of Education's follow-up to the report cards.

Administrators in RSU 54, where Skowhegan Area High School received a D, declined an interview with department staff.

Principal Rick Wilson said the meeting would have taken four or five hours, and district officials already know why the school got the grade it did. Standardized test scores and the graduation rate would have earned the school a C through the report card's formula, but they were docked a letter grade for having 94 percent test participation, short of the 95 percent requirement.

Given all that school staff already do to get students to take the Maine High School Assessment, and the department's inability to do anything about it, Wilson said the meeting would not have been a good use of time.

Wilson said he's not sure what the Department of Education could do to help his staff with instruction, given that they face a financial squeeze just like local school districts.

"Their staff is so small and the needs so great, and they're stretched so thin, I think they don't have the capabilities to get in and do the work that needs to get done," he said.

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