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The Path Forward in K - 12

It is time to address the real reasons Maine students are not performing…    

Harvard University’s study of education achievement across the country over the last twenty years, released this past July, was sobering reading.  As measured by well-regarded national and international assessments, the U.S. overall performance was described as “middling” and insufficient to close the gap with the top performing countries.

In Maine’s case the news was even more depressing.  Maine ranked 49th out of 50 states in ability to show progress over the past twenty years.  In some areas, notably 4th grade reading proficiency, the performance of Maine’s students had actually deteriorated.  This in spite of the fact that Maine has significantly increased funding for K-12 education over the period, and that Maine now has one of the lowest ratios of students to teachers in the country. These results set off something of a firestorm in the press and in Augusta.

What could explain Maine’s disappointing showing? Some state education leaders pointed out Maine students had started from a higher performance base than many other states. While true, this accounts for less than ten percent of the difference, according to the researchers who led the study. I would argue there are four potential explanations:  (1) current Maine students are simply not as bright as their predecessors; (2) Maine teachers today are less able and effective than those who taught in the early 90’s; (3) the approach Maine has taken to improving education is flawed or (4) structural flaws in the education system have effectively blunted education improvement efforts.

I believe that the last factor, structural flaws in the current education system, is the most significant in explaining Maine’s and the nation’s poor performance. Current Maine students are surely similar in ability to their predecessors, Maine teachers are certainly better than those of twenty years ago, and Maine’s initial approach to education reform, while indeed cumbersome, had many sound elements.

The most significant structural flaw in today’s public school system is that principals do not have sufficient levers to drive teacher improvement, and teachers’ capabilities are far and away the most significant factor in improving student performance.  Solid education research from many sources over the past ten years has revealed the outline of truly successful schools – schools that demonstrably move the needle in educational performance.  These schools tend to be the best of the charter schools. Schools like ELHaynes in Washington, D.C., the Brooklyn Success Academy, and the KIPP schools now located in several cities across the country. The most significant difference between these schools and most public schools is that these schools are led by principals empowered to recruit, develop, and if necessary, remove members of their teaching teams.

These schools have teachers who share their teaching practices in ways that spur professional growth.  Typically, they have teacher evaluation models that incorporate peer and principal observations along with objective measures of student performance. These schools have principals who are empowered to work with teachers on improvement plans, but also who have the ability to replace teachers who are not measuring up. In such a system teachers have much more positive reinforcement and motivation to improve their craft.  Few teachers, in practice, are removed, but the principal’s power to do so acts as a motivator.

Finally, those schools are data-driven.  They do not over-test, but they use assessment data routinely to ensure, for example, that all students are at grade-level in reading by the third grade.

Most public schools have a few good, self-motivated teachers who lead the way, many teachers who are average and happy to stay that way, and a few teachers, known to all, who should be in another profession. This is not a mix that has adapted well to the needs of today’s students. Students today may be as able as previous generations, but they also tend to be over-wired and easily distracted. Today’s teachers have to be able to engage in ways that are more challenging than in past generations. However, the public school principal simply does not have the power to help make the average and below average teachers better at engaging and teaching. Given today’s tenure rules a teacher can outlast any principal. Principals, already heavily burdened with day-to-day demands of the job, are more likely to not take these battles on.

It is not an accident that one of the states that showed best in the Harvard study was Massachusetts.  In Massachusetts a combination of high stakes testing and governance reform to strengthen the power of superintendents and principals has resulted in positive education outcomes, demonstrating that there may be ways to successfully strengthen the public school model.

In Maine it is time to address a flawed education system.  We must give principals the power to build their own teams and the evaluation, development, assessment, and leadership capabilities to make this happen.  The teacher’s union will be reluctant, but they cannot explain away the fact that Maine is 49th in rate of educational improvement- next to last, losing ground. Feel-good sentiments and more of the same policies are not the answer.  We are losing the most precious gift we could give to our children – a good education.