Saturday, March 8, 2014
LAST YEAR, MAINE took an important step forward by implementing a statewide A-F grading system for schools. Now parents, school leaders and policymakers have access to clear, easy-to-understand information about the quality of schools across the state.
As someone who believes that all of Maine’s students should have access to a great education, I am a strong supporter of this policy. We should stand behind this new reform and help our kids by maintaining and further improving our A-F school grading system.
In my time in the Legislature, I’ve learned that high-quality information is the cornerstone of good decision-making. And that’s why A-F school grading is so important. It allows school leaders to simply and easily compare schools to identify best practices, as well as determine whether schools are getting better or worse from year to year.
It’s a common-sense policy that’s a clear win for kids.
Yet there has been substantial opposition, particularly from several of my colleagues in the Legislature and administrators of low-performing schools. They are concerned that A-F school grading will reflect poorly on them.
That view demonstrates misplaced priorities. After all, shouldn’t our policies be determined by what’s best for kids, not adults?
A-F school grading already has created a culture that focuses on student success in many states across the country. Furthermore, substantial gains in student achievement have been seen on recent tests, gains that can be contributed to this new focus on student achievement.
For instance, Indiana implemented an A-F school grading system in 2010. Schools are now held to higher standards and held accountable for student performance, which has changed the culture around schools to focus on student success.
This system has paid off for kids, as Indiana’s students made the second-largest gains among states on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card.
Florida, another state with an A-F grading system, has made similar progress. Its students made the fifth-largest gains among states on the 2013 report card. For decades, Florida’s education system was notorious for poor performance. Now, it is a national model for smart policy and on the path to success.
If we stick by our A-F school grading system, we can create a system that focuses on our students, and our students ultimately could make those same gains.
Yet we should go further. There are still several steps that Maine should take to improve how we grade our schools.
• Maine should enact our A-F grading system as law. It currently exists only as an administrative regulation implemented by the state Department of Education. By passing a bill that mandates the system, we can guarantee that all education stakeholders have access to high-quality information about Maine’s schools today and in the future.
• Maine should consider enlisting an independent company to evaluate our schools under the A-F system. As we all know, having our government complete this crucial function introduces the possibility of political bias. A third party, however, would help to ensure that grading of schools is independent of political forces.
For example, the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado, Denver, is tasked with assigning A-F school grades in Colorado. This independence ensures expertise and helps to prevent corruption. It’s no wonder that a survey from Great Schools, an organization that specializes in school grading, showed that parents trust third-party grading more than government grading.
• We should expand the report cards to include data about school budgets and how programs are linked to student achievement. Especially in a time when resources are limited, it is essential that we look at whether our investments in education are paying off for kids. After all, how can we make our schools better if we don’t know which strategies and initiatives are working?
Maine already has the system and structure in place to do this. By improving the fiscal transparency and accountability of our schools, we can help our schools improve even faster.
The Department of Education should be applauded for its efforts to implement A-F grading thus far. But we still have a long way to go to create a policy environment that sets up all of Maine’s students for success.
Maine has many great schools, and many incredible teachers. However, if we are serious about giving all of our kids access to the same high-quality education, we have a lot of work to do. Maine’s students and families deserve nothing less.Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, serves on the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.