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School improvement efforts under the radar

Learning Results is a work in progress, but we can cheer teachers for striving to better themselves.

 

From 30,000 feet, the state of Maine's K-12 education system is disappointing. Scores on the Maine Educational Assessment tests have been essentially flat for the past several years. The commissioner of education has failed in three successive attempts to develop an approach that will assess how well Maine students measure up to statewide standards, Maine's Learning Results.

These standards are good, challenging benchmarks that determine the readiness of Maine's high school students to go on to further education. However, we are unable to agree on a reasonable way to assess the achievement on Learning Results and translate this into a high school diploma.

The situation is somewhat akin to that of the Detroit automakers. They know they must get all models up to a new standard in fuel efficiency, yet they are still producing the same old models.

EDUCATION INNOVATION STALLS

It wasn't always like this. When I decided to get involved in efforts to improve education in the early '90s, it seemed that we were able to make progress. Under the leadership of Gov. Angus King and Education Commissioner Duke Albanese, Maine developed an excellent set of standards, the Maine Learning Results.

Maine was the first state in the country to mandate these standards. Legislation passed in 1997 mandated that the class of 2007 would graduate on the basis of achieving these standards. At the time, Maine's students were consistently scoring in the top five nationally on achievement tests.

Today, Maine's student performance has been surpassed by many other states -- states that started improvement efforts after us but have been more effective in translating plans into action. However, all is not lost.

Last week, I was encouraged to view the improvement work quietly going on in several Maine high schools with the help of the Great Schools Partnership. High schools as diverse as tiny Fort Kent and urban Deering are embarked on an approach that focuses on what they can control: improving teaching practice. While statewide policy debates drag on, these schools are making better instruction count.

Building from the premise that the most significant factor in improving student outcomes is effective teaching, these schools have adopted a series of practical approaches to build communities of professional practice among teachers and administrators.

What resonated most with me from the presentations of these school teams was the strength and power that came from these groups of teachers, administrators and community members working together.

HIGH SCHOOLS POINT TO PROGRESS

The Great Schools Partnership, a nonprofit affiliate of the Mitchell Institute led by veteran educators Albanese and David Ruff, provides a coach to each high school that enrolls in the program.

The coach works with an interdisciplinary team at the school to shape a plan that improves instruction and focuses curriculum. Great Schools has developed excellent technology in its iWalkthrough personal digital assistant to aid teachers in observing colleagues and framing those observations in a powerful learning rubric.

The combination of Great Schools' experience in "what works" in high school reform, its on-site coaching assistance and its iWalkthrough technology seem to give the schools in the partnership a framework in which they are able to really focus on strengthening instruction practice .

The eight teams that reported on progress last week at their event in Portland were certainly enthusiastic about the approach and the progress they have been able to make. All agree that their efforts have to be multi-year and ongoing to sustain real improvement. Yet all could point to indicators of progress they were proud of.

Fort Kent, for example, had been able to reduce the number of students failing one or more courses from a total of 33 years ago to just five this year. Most of the schools involved have also substantially increased the number of their students going on to higher education.

In a tribute to this program's egalitarian approach, students were also a part of some of these teams and attested to the impact changes have made in improving their education and raising their aspirations.

I left the session with these high schools last week recognizing that as long as we have such grass-roots efforts flourishing in Maine there is hope for following through on the promise of Maine -- The Learning State.