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Evaluating Maine Schools: Democrats Unveil Their Own Plan
05/08/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

The political jockeying over the best way to help struggling schools improve continued in Augusta today. Democrats unveiled their own school evaluation system, a week after the governor released his controversial A - through - F grades. A half-hour later, Education Commissioner Steve Bowen met the media to talk about steps the administration would be taking to help schools that received Ds and Fs. Jay Field reports.

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Education Commissioner Bowen, Gov. LePage and others in the administration say one of the things they hoped A - through - F grading would do is spark a conversation. By that measure, the system has been a wild success.

"His A-F grading system is flawed. It seeks to embarrass students, teachers, schools, and frankly, our communities, rather than encourage, incentivize and help underperforming schools do better," said Sen. Rebecca Millet.

Millet and other critics say the governor's system takes a one-size-fits-all approach that ensures that the worst grades go to the state's poorest schools.

Millet, a Cape Elizabeth Democrat, is co-chair of the Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. "And so, today, we are here to announce a proposal for a school evaluation system. It will be based on student progress, not a snapshot in time, like standardized tests," she said.

The Democrats approach, though short on details, breaks with LePage's plan in several key areas. Rep. Bruce MacDonald, a Boothbay Democrat and the other co-chair of the Education Committee, says a bill creating the alternative grading system will reflect feedback from meetings with stakeholder groups in districts across the state.

"We know, in general, what we want schools to be teaching," MacDonald said. "But we want to go, forward looking, at what teachers, administrators, parents, children, other stakeholders in the process, see as the total offering that we need to be doing for a 21st century education."

Gov. LePage first suggested he might give schools letter grades during his State-of-the-State speech. Democrats denied they were caught flat-footed by the move and say they'd been considering their own evaluation alternatives for some time.

The party's plan will not assign letter grades to schools, nor will it use a bell curve to make initial comparisons of schools. But Millet says it will ensure that socioeconomic differences are handled in a way that's more fair, "so that a school in Falmouth, where the median family income exceeds $115,000, isn't compared to a school in Lewiston, where the median family income is $11,194."

"There's no question there's challenges - I grew up in Penobscot. This wasn't a wealthy community," said Education Commissioner Steve Bowen.

Bowen, who met the media a half-hour after the Democrats, says there is evidence that schools can overcome their socioeconomic status and excel. "One of the things the grading system showed us is you do have schools in areas with high levels of poverty that have high levels of achievement," he said.

But it also showed that the overwhelming majority of schools that received Ds and Fs have high percentages of kids on free and reduced lunch. Bowen says the administration is now turning its focus to what it needs to do to help these schools get better.

"Our team here is going to reach out to all the D and F schools," he said. "We're going to get feedback from them. Then, what we're going to do here, is complete a needs analysis. We've talked about some half-day sessions to sit down and really dig in with them a little bit, into the data some more, and help them help us think through some of the technical support pieces that we could do to help them out."

There is some federal money available to help poor - or so-called Title 1 - schools that are struggling. The LePage administration wants to spend an additional $3 million to help underperforming, non-Title 1 schools.

But the proposal has run into opposition in the Education Committee. And Democratic members of the committee aren't likely to approve another administration priority: a bill that would allow students in a struggling school to enroll somewhere else, if improvement efforts fail after two years.


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