Friday, December 6, 2013
I visited Gov. Paul LePage in June, and our conversation drifted to a subject that was very much on the governor's mind: our state's educational deficiencies.
This was not new, but his concern came to the public's attention on July 16 when his office released a statement titled "Harvard Study Shows Maine at the Bottom in Education Achievement Growth."
This study, "Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance," released that same day by Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance, concluded that 20 years of educational tinkering in the United States has produced few student achievement advances.
At our meeting, the governor criticized what he called "the vending machine theory of education. You simply put money in and education comes out."
Harvard's study made it clear that increased spending does not correlate reliably with increased performance. It showed that, in spite of spending increases below the national average, Florida, Colorado and North Carolina showed increases in student achievement above the national average. Maine, West Virginia and New Mexico, in contrast, increased spending by more than the national average but produced hardly any improvement.
Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, conceded that Maine's scores were disappointing, although she said they were not really all that bad. She found fault with Harvard's conclusions and referred to other, more cheerful, studies that she did not cite.
Kilby-Chesley took the position that, "It's not about getting rid of bad teachers. It's about giving support to our teachers in the classroom."
Her reaction is not surprising. What would be surprising -- astounding, in fact -- would be to hear a teachers union leader admitting that such bad teachers exist, or even could exist.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, liberal, and former union organizer, does not agree.
He has described the Los Angeles teachers union leadership as an "unwavering roadblock to reform" because of its resistance to adequate systems of teacher evaluation. Less than 2 percent of teachers in Los Angeles were denied tenure during his first year in office.
In the last decade, according to LA Weekly, the city "spent $3.5 million trying to fire just seven of the district's 33,000 teachers for poor classroom performance."
Similar results are found elsewhere. Teachers in Florida gain tenure after three years of "satisfactory" evaluations. In 2009, 99.7 percent received this evaluation.
Michelle Rhee said that when she took over the District of Columbia school system in 2007, 95 percent of the teachers were rated excellent and none was terminated.
In 2010, Rhee was fired after the mayor who hired her was defeated in the Democratic primary by an opponent supported by the D.C. union. LePage considered Rhee for the Maine education commissioner job, but decided the state could not afford her salary.
Kilby-Chesley, the MEA president, advocates a "professional development model" as the answer to poor teacher performance.
Whether this action would be successful, however, is questionable in light of the June 2011 findings of the National Council on Teacher Quality, which reported that the Los Angeles Unified School District "squanders" more than $500 million per year on an academic-improvement strategy that has consistently proved to be ineffective.
Just to be clear, these academic "improvements" are for the teachers, not the students.
LePage's concern extends well beyond problems of teacher evaluation. He proposes a wholesale attack on a failed status quo.
Although his budget increased state expenditures on education, LePage does not, as he made clear in our discussion, believe that more money is an adequate response to our poor educational results. He is committed to expanding the school choices available to parents as a means of displacing the status quo.
It is appropriate to recall that in 2010, independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler "took swipes at what he sees as the status quo," to quote an editorial by a supporter named Ron Bancroft.
Cutler's own website asked the same question the governor is asking: "Why are we spending so much on public education in Maine and apparently getting so little in return?"
John Frary, of Farmington, is a retired professor and former Republican candidate for Congress.