May 9, 2013

Democrats unveil their school grading plan

Staff video by Joe Phelan

By Noel K. Gallagher
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Democrats unveiled their own proposal Wednesday for how the state should evaluate Maine's public schools, even as state education officials announced follow-up plans for schools that got D's and F's under the state's new A-to-F grading system.

click image to enlarge

The co-chairs of the Legislature's Education Committee - Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, left, and Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay introduce a Democratic plan to grade schools during a news conference on Wednesday at the State House.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Democrats' plan details

Democrats said the following elements would be included in their school evaluation plan:

• Accurate measures of student progress over at least five years

• Interviews with parents, school board members, teachers, and other education leaders about the overall school climate and environment

• College attendance and attainment rates over at least five years, including enlistment in the U.S. Armed Forces

• Peer group comparisons based on characteristics such as special education, free and reduced-price lunch, and English-language learner rates

• Attendance rates

• Graduation rates based on 95 percent graduation, not 100 percent graduation

• Major substantive rule making

• Evaluation of performance targets, rather than penalizing schools for student participation rates in standardized tests

* Evaluation results not ranked on a bell curve, in which a predetermined number of schools would get a certain ranking.

Senate President Justin Alfond, D- Portland, described Republican Gov. Paul LePage's new A-to-F grading system unveiled last week as simplistic and "a real disaster."

"What you have is two contrasting plans," said Alfond, one of 23 legislators who gathered at the podium to announce the plan. "The governor has run out of bad things to say about our schools, so he came up with this. He wanted the shock effect, and that's what he got."

The co-leaders of the Legislature's Education Committee -- Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, and Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay -- are leading the Democrats' effort. They said a stakeholder group would work out the details of what elements would go into the formula.

"(LePage's) A-to-F system is flawed," Millett said. "It seeks to embarrass teachers, schools and our communities."

Among the elements in their proposed evaluation process are attendance and graduation rates, including military service; interviews with parents, teachers, and school board members about the school; and peer group comparisons based on characteristics such as rates of free and reduced-price lunch -- an indicator of poverty levels -- and special education.

LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen unveiled the A-to-F grading system last week, and critics immediately attacked it as unfair. The system is based largely on standardized test scores in mathematics and English, student growth and progress, and graduation rates for high schools. More than a dozen other states use similar grading systems.

MacDonald called it a system of "shame and blame."

"Gov. LePage has misplaced priorities. He has put students last," MacDonald said.

Republicans on Wednesday criticized the Democrats' plan. "An 11th-hour piece of draft legislation is not what Maine schools need," said House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, of Newport.

Also Wednesday, in a last-minute news conference timed to begin right after the Democrats unveiled their plan, Bowen announced a plan to help the schools that got D's and F's under the governor's grading system, perhaps through a $3 million "school accountability" fund proposed in the governor's state budget.

Bowen said he was creating a new "strategic school improvement support center" at the department, which would manage a targeted, cohesive approach to provide department resources to those schools. Under this model, for example, the department might identify a group of elementary schools that need help with fourth-grade mathematics and would work with them as a group instead of individually.

Bowen also said the department before the end of the school year will contact all D and F schools, do an initial analysis of school data, review the school's programming and help identify the school's "more pressing technical assistance or professional development" needs.

"We're going to start right away," he said. "It's a long list of stuff and it's going to fundamentally change the work this department does."

The department also plans to convene nine regional meetings over the next three months for representatives from each of the D and F schools, and create individualized action plans for those schools during the 2013-14 school year.

Bowen also said LePage wants to create a teacher advisory group that would meet with the governor on an ongoing basis and serve as an advisory board on state-led school improvement efforts. LePage historically has been hostile to teacher unions and public schools during his time in office.

One of the criticisms of the grading system, and of the administration in general, has been that the schools are facing dwindling resources. Democratic lawmakers have criticized LePage's $6.3 billion state budget proposal for the next two years for flat-funding education while diverting money to other initiatives.

Bowen said the efforts announced Wednesday would use the existing staff and resources within the department. When asked whether schools would get more money, he said he thought they could improve with the resources they already have.

"It's going to take a lot of convincing to make me think they can't do it with what they've got," Bowen said.


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