AUGUSTA — The Department of Education is finalizing its bid to exempt Maine from some requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind system.

Under Maine’s proposal, which is being detailed this week during public forums, schools’ targets would be set and their progress measured based on where they start, rather than holding everyone to a single standard that’s always rising.

Some schools face greater challenges than others, and the new system will recognize that, Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said during an online forum Monday night.

“Maybe we aren’t getting those kids where they need to be by the day of the test, but we are showing growth,” Bowen said. “We need to recognize that there are schools in low socio-economic areas that are making a tremendous amount of growth.”

No Child Left Behind requires schools to bring all students to proficiency by 2014, a goal that no state is in a position to reach. The Obama administration is releasing states from that requirement if they create new plans for school accountability and improvement.

Thirty-three states have received waivers from the system, and Maine education officials plan to submit their application Sept. 6.

One of the key provisions would require schools to close their proficiency gap by half in six years.

A school where 76 percent of students are proficient in math and reading, and 24 percent are not proficient, would have to raise proficiency by 12 percentage points by 2018-19, to 88 percent proficiency.

A school that starts at 28 percent proficiency would be required to improve much faster and bring proficiency up to 64 percent in the same six-year period.

“First and foremost, what we’re looking for is annual growth,” said Mark Kostin of the Great Schools Partnership, who has helped with the application. “And secondly, we’re basing progress and end targets based on a school’s starting position.”

Schools that receive money through the federal Title I program, which is for schools with a high percentage of low-income students, would be categorized into four groups: priority, focus, progressing toward target or meeting target. Those rankings would be based on absolute performance, progress toward targets, achievement gaps within the school and graduation rates.

Schools in the lowest two categories would be subject to a variety of interventions, such as improvement plans and regular reports. They also would receive additional support from the Department of Education.

The Legislature may need to set aside some specific funding for schools struggling to improve, Bowen said.

“That’s a good public policy discussion for us to have a state,” Bowen said. “Are we serious about turning around schools that are really struggling? Are we prepared to put some money and some resources and some time, some department resources, on the table?”

Bowen said Maine policymakers also need to discuss whether to apply the same accountability system to non-Title I schools, which would require new legislation. Of more than 600 schools in Maine, about 240 do not receive Title I funding.

The question of funding is a big one to representatives of school leaders and teachers, who say it will require intensive professional development and other support to make big gains. That concern was raised during Monday night’s online forum.

“We all have a limit to what our money is, and so my concern would be is, if we take money and give it to one thing, that means it comes from someplace else,” Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, said in an interview.

Kilby-Chesly said there are many things in the waiver application that the teachers union supports, such as teacher evaluations, but there are many other areas where she wants more information.

Dale Douglass, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said he is concerned about the strings that may be attached to the U.S. Department of Education’s approval of a waiver.

“We want to make sure that we won’t be trading one set of problems for another in the demands that the feds are going to make,” Douglass said.

Most waiver requests made by states have been approved. Bowen said he expects that some negotiations and “back and forth” will be necessary before Maine officials and federal officials reach an agreement.


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