BY EDWARD D. MURPHY
Maine’s education policies are getting a passing grade — by the barest of margins.
StudentsFirst, an education reform group led by Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of public schools in Washington, D.C., is releasing a report today that gives Maine’s policies a grade of D.
The report gives the state’s schools a C-minus for efforts to elevate teaching, a D-minus for empowering parents and a D-minus for spending wisely and governing well.
The StudentsFirst report focuses more on a state’s education policies than test scores, in which Maine students have done better than the organization’s findings would suggest. For instance, Maine fourth-graders ranked 14th nationally in mathematics and 22nd in reading in the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, and eighth-graders were 13th in mathematics and 10th in reading.
StudentsFirst, however, said Maine’s policies on upgrading teaching proficiency were 16th nationally, its ranking on empowering parents was 22nd nationally, and its ability to spend educational dollars wisely and govern effectively were 45th nationally.
StudentsFirst faulted Maine for failing to make sure teachers and principals are evaluated every year; and for allowing seniority, rather than teaching effectiveness, to drive personnel decisions. It also said parents need to be given more information on how well their children’s schools are performing, and that the state should allow the formation of more charter schools — three have been approved, but the number is capped at 10 charter schools in the next decade.
Finally, StudentsFirst said mayors or the state should be allowed to take over control of underperforming schools; spending should be linked to academic achievement; and Maine should create a modern teacher retirement system, such as a 401(k), instead of its expensive pension plan.
Craig Wallace, who oversaw development of the report on Maine for StudentsFirst, said some of the problems stem from Mainers’ reluctance to give up local control of schools, a stance that also delayed school consolidation efforts in the past decade.
Wallace said states that have led the pack in turning around educational systems have done so with the states dictating policies and setting standards, rather than leaving decisions to local school boards.
“Local districts will often not tackle those issues,” Wallace said. “Accountability is often dictated by the state. With local control, it’s hard to ensure the kind of statewide results we’re looking for.”
Wallace said Maine is “late to the game in charter schools” and needs to move more quickly to allow the schools to set up and to lift the cap on the number that will be allowed. He also said the state needs to develop more detailed standards for charter schools and be ready to close down those that fail to deliver.
The report notes that Maine has taken some positive steps, such as developing teacher and principal standards, although it needs to require that those professionals be graded each year. Wallace also said that
many of the needed reforms aren’t overly complex and could even be adopted by lawmakers this year, although it will take some years before they start to affect school performance.
He also noted that StudentsFirst isn’t calling for a major increase in school spending. Its most expensive proposal is for a publicly funded scholarship program for low-income students in schools that are performing poorly to transfer to private schools.
Gov. Paul LePage was provided a preview of the StudentsFirst report card. He issued a statement Friday saying the study looked at “exactly the type of subjects we should be measuring and improving.”
LePage, who has pushed several educational reform proposals and has said private schools are superior to public schools, said the StudentsFirst report “warrants careful consideration. Until we put students first, we will continue to drown in status quo.”
However, Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, which represents teachers, said the report mostly reflects the ideology of Rhee — who battled the teachers union in Washington — and her organization’s corporate and conservative sponsors.
“They’d just as soon see the teacher unions be dismantled. That’s one of their goals,” Kilby-Chesley said.
She said the report fails to recognize some of the steps that are under way in Maine, including a review of teacher evaluations, and doesn’t address Maine’s above-average scores on national tests.
“We see the biased sort of scorecards occasionally,” she said. “You get someone who has an agenda, and they are going to bring their agenda forward, whether it’s true or not.”