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Maine Teachers Union: Low-Graded Schools Getting Little Help
10/31/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Six months after the LePage administration gave more than 100 Maine schools a grade of D or lower, the state teachers' union says the Department of Education has done little to follow-up with struggling school districts. Maine Department of Education officials deny the union's claims, which they say are politically motivated. A.J. Higgins has more.

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The school grading card ignited a firestorm in May when the state Department of Education survey concluded that about 20 percent of the state's elementary schools deserved a grade of D or lower. The findings were even worse at the high school level, where 30 percent of the schools were earning those failing grades.

Although Gov. Paul LePage said he wanted to use the findings to help Maine schools, Lois Kilby-Chesley, the president of the Maine Education Association, says her union teachers say they're not getting much assistance from the state Department of Education. "Little to nothing has been done to help them out," Kilby-Chesley says.

Kilby-Chesley says that she had thought the department would be providing some assistance to the schools that wanted it, and although she says some schools have had visits from the DOE, they have not received financial or other assistance to help teachers improve.

That was a goal expressed by the governor at the time of the report card's release. The union president says the department's online webinars had little impact, and did nothing to erase the stigma attached to letter grades that were demoralizing to dozens of schools and the affected communities.

Kilby-Chesley says what teachers in Maine really want is the kind of expertise or financial assistance that will help them advance in their careers.

"We look at professional development opportunities as a way to provide the knowledge to educators so that they can take that knowledge back and put it into the classroom," Kilby-Chesley says. "These A to F grades, honestly, probably didn't tell any school anything that they didn't already know. Some of them certainly had already started the process of improvement, but some of them they needed to get the support from the department to get started, and they're still waiting."

"I would concur with the statement that the schools already knew the data. The problem was, it wasn't getting shared," says Rachelle Tome, the chief academic officer for the Department of Education, and the chief architect behind the school-rading plan.

She and others within the department felt the grading system was needed because parents in some of the failing school communities weren't being given a complete picture of their students' experience. Tome defends the system and strongly disputes Kilby-Chesley's characterizations of the department's efforts to assist local school districts. She says that rather than engage in politically-motivated discussions on local education, she would prefer to see the students realize their potential.

To achieve that goal, Tome says more than a dozen people are often in the field for weeks at a time. Tome says the union's allegations ignored a major effort over the summer by the department dedicated to professional teacher development.

"I know that during the last week of June, there were at least three different conferences happening simultaneously for educators, and there were three different sessions of literacy conferences happening throughout this summer all across the state," Tome says. "In addition to that, members of the department, including myself, have gone on a regional basis to different workshops. So I think it would be false to say that there have not been efforts to reach out and provide professional development."

Tome says the Department of Education will be releasing an updated Maine school grading system next year.


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