Category Archives: Education in Maine

A-F Grading System Can’t “Meet the Standard”

Back in February, the Governor announced a new (well, based on other states’ models, but new for Maine) grading system of Maine’s schools.  The system will be based on the what-I-thought-were-the-now-antiquated A-through-F grades just as the Proficiency-Based Diploma (20-A MRSA 4722-A) comes into being in the state.

Despite the fact that I’m not a fan of proficiency-based education, I took a look at the Maine Department of Education‘s Glossary of Terms Related to Proficiency-Based Learning just to remind myself what the most basic terms meant for Maine schools.

  • Proficiency: Targeted level of achievement in a standard or learning goal. “Demonstrating proficiency” is synonymous with “demonstrating mastery” or “meeting the standard.”
  • Standard: A description of skill or knowledge deemed essential.

I then compared those two terms to what the Governor said in his April 20 weekly radio address would be some of the standards by which Maine’s schools would be graded:

  • student achievement in reading and math (only those two apparently, not the rest of the system of Learning Results as required by Maine law)
  • growth in achievement
  • performance and growth of the bottom 25 percent of students (for elementary schools)
  • graduation rate (for high schools)

I imagine there will be significant discussion over the value and reliability of any or all of those standards, plus any others that may someday be revealed.

But no matter how one feels about any of this, the first question really should be: Did Maine’s schools KNOW what the standards would be in order to be able to meet them?  If not – and I believe this is the case – the proposed practice of grading schools violates the administration’s own definition of proficiency.

I hope the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs weighs in on this travesty soon.  They may not be able to countermand a gubernatorial executive order, but they can certainly make it clear to the Governor and the Commissioner that the Legislature’s interest in proficiency-based education is more than just words.

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Stopping the Minimum Teacher Salary

According the Maine Department of Education’s website, followed by an article in the Bangor Daily News today, the State of Maine has decided to stop subsidizing the minimum teacher salary. The minimum teacher salary has been $30,000 in Maine for many years ($27,000 in 2005-06; $30,000 since then) [20-A MRSA 13405, 13406]. However, the state has been reimbursing school systems that did not pay the minimum.

The effect of this policy has been to keep down starting salaries in many smaller, rural school systems around the state.

For example, a typical salary scale in 2004-05 might have looked like this:

STEP SALARY
0 25,000
1 26,000
2 27,000
3 28,000
4 29,000
5 30,000
6 31,000
7 32,000
8 33,000
9 34,000
10 35,000
11 36,000
12 37,000
13 38,000
14 39,000
15 40,000
16 41,500
18 42,000
20 42,500
25 43,000

So, in 2004-05, a new teacher (Teacher A, no experience) would have been hired at $25,000 (Step 0 on the negotiated scale).

In 2005-06, another new teacher (Teacher B) could still have been hired at $25,000, but paid $27,000. The state would have reimbursed the school $2,000 for Teacher B. Even Teacher A, hired the year previously, would have garnered the school system a subsidy because Teacher A (now at Step 1) was still $1,000 below the mandatory minimum.

A year later, another new teacher (Teacher C) might still have been hired at the same $25,000, but paid $30,000. The school system contributed $25,000 and the state the other $5,000. The two previously hired teachers were each also paid the $30,000; the school system got reimbursed $3,000 for Teacher A, $4,000 for Teacher B. Those subsidies totaled $12,000 that the school system did not have to spend out of their own budgets, but helped them pay newer teachers almost as much as their colleagues who had many years’ experience.

There was almost no incentive to move the scale below Step 5 to anything other than where it stood. Any money that became available during the years since 2005 would have been applied to the higher steps on the scale. New teachers became stuck at $30,000 until they reached Step 6 – seven years into their careers!

It is long past time for the State of Maine to stop the minimum teacher salary subsidies. However, the Essential Programs and Services funding formula also needs to change in order to make sure smaller, rural school systems can actually afford to pay their teachers what they are worth: the same as professional educators in other parts of the state.

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Defending Public Education

Lisa Cooley, a Maine school board member and blogger, has been posting for a while now about how public education needs an overhaul.  Her most recent post, found at the Innovative Educator, is entitled I Am No Longer Willing to Let Traditional Schooling Hurt Our Children. I believe she equates traditional education with public education and vice versa.  Her post has received a lot of positive comments; since I disagree, I’m using this venue to cross-post my own responses.

Cooley: If we agree that schools are built on a foundation that is shaky at best, what would happen instead if we did things differently?

I almost completely disagree. The purpose of public education is not to cater to individual kids’ [parents’] needs or wants, but to create an informed and literate populace. That means that there needs to be a general understanding of what’s important for people to know: literature, writing, math, science, etc. Allowing individual students to determine their own learning plans based on what they [think they] care about [for now] is not going to help.

The statement that schools alone are hurting students is itself harmful. Schools and teachers do not go out of their way to create problems for students. Students come to school with their own sets of problems that then play out again throughout the day without any help from the school itself. As several researchers have recently pointed out, the primary problem for American schools is poverty.

As Mr. Bartan says, some kids have the opportunities to pursue their passions. Others don’t. Schools have to level the playing field as much as possible with limited resources (financial, personnel, time and otherwise) available to them. It’s illogical to demand the complete reform/transform/overhaul of traditional education based on anecdote.

The responses to the above were almost completely negative. I was accused of not understanding that schools are oppressive places designed simply for an out-dated industrial model. So, here’s what I wrote:

I understand the thinking behind “the education system was designed for the industrial age and that doesn’t fit our current times”. I just believe it’s erroneous. 

Starting with Maria Montessori and moving through John Holt and others, many educators have theorized that public education needs an overhaul because it doesn’t meet the individual needs of kids. On the other hand, public education hasn’t changed a lot probably because meeting the individual needs of individual kids is time-consuming and expensive as evidenced by special education (PL 94-142 passed in 1972) which is based on the Individual Education Plan (IEP). Each identified special education student is guaranteed a “free and appropriate (not perfect) public education” (FAPE) through whatever accommodations and modifications are required in his/her case. It’s a valuable but costly process that has created a specialized bureaucracy in schools and towns across the country.

I am retired and currently working as an Educational Technician with at-risk kids. These students do not have the type of home life that provides opportunities for pursuing their passions and interests (except video games and hanging around town). They don’t even have the type of home life that encourages reading or cooking (so as to learn fractions, for example) or building (geometry) with Mom and Dad or grandparents. 

One purpose of public education is to level that playing field as much as possible. That’s a reason Maine provides laptops for all middle-school students. Another purpose is to provide a foundation in basic skills and knowledge. Kids are kids, no matter what era they live in. They need guidance. They need help. They aren’t in a position – yet – make their own decisions because the don’t have the experience to know what they need.

The idea of a free day is lovely, but schools run 9-10 months of the year. Show me how this works for an entire year. And then another entire year. I doubt you can. And even if you could, the resources required to make it happen would be astounding.

Blaming schools for society’s ills is pointless. 6 hours per day (give or take) for 175 days (or so) is all schools see of kids. The rest of the time is spent at home or out-and-about. Kids who are on the edge of homelessness, or searching for a sexual identity, or living with grandparents because Mom and Dad are in drug rehab are unlikely candidates for appropriately pursuing their passions – in or out of a school building. Help schools, stop blaming them.

I know that my lone voice won’t make a lot of difference in defending traditional public education but it’s important for someone to try: there’s a lot of good in public education today and it does not require a complete reinvention. Tweaking, yes.  Truly heeding the voices of teachers and other educators, yes.  Acknowledging the needs of kids, yes. Letting them run the show? No.

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New Teacher Evaluation Process for Maine

A, by circumstances beyond my control, very short legislative history of teacher evaluations in Maine:

 Until the Spring of 2010, Maine teachers could not legally be evaluated using student assessments. The previous law read: “The student assessment program is separate from local practices and procedures regarding supervision and evaluation of a teacher for retention by a school administrative unit.” [20-A MRSA 6204(3), now repealed].

When the federal Race to the Top was adopted, there was significant debate over various state-level educational policies that stood in the way of Maine getting any of the RttT money.  One of those was Maine’s prohibition against linking teacher evaluations with student test data.  LD 1799 was introduced in order to eliminate that prohibition.  You can read some of now-Commissioner of Education Steve Bowen’s thoughts about then-LD 1799 here.

Despite their professed opposition to the bill …

LD 1799 proposed the removal of a 25 year old firewall between teacher evaluations and student testing. MEA opposed it, saying that it was sound public policy and that the legislature would be breaking a promise made to teachers with the introduction of the Maine Educational Assessments.

… the Maine Education Association proposed a solution that allowed the prohibition to be eliminated: create a stakeholder group to “review” teacher evaluation models that had been “established” by the Maine Department of Education.  Since the MEA was part of that stakeholder group, I expect they thought they could control the process sufficiently to keep student test data out of the evaluation models.  Given that the two MEA representatives were outnumbered by the eight members of the group who belonged to various administrators’ professional associations, though, I wondered how that could work.  Since MEA proposed that group composition, they were in no position to gripe.

Anyway, in the current legislative session – no surprise – the inevitable happened: the terms of the old LD 1799 were changed by the language of the new LD 391 (soon to be part of 20-A MRSA 13802). Most of the old (relatively-speaking) language was kept, but a few major changes were made:

  • the word “develop” became “propose”;
  • the Department of Education is no longer able to “adopt” but could only “put forth” an evaluation model;
  • the July 2011 deadline for that the evaluation model being written was eliminated; and, last but certainly not least,
  • this language was included: “Nothing in this section prevents a school administrative unit from developing and adopting its own models for teacher and principal evaluation.”

Uh-huh.

So, in the space of one year – at the initiation of the union that supposedly protects teachers against arbitrary employer actions  – the 26-year old Maine law that prohibited student test data from being used in teacher evaluations was eliminated and the ability of school boards/committees across the state to implement whatever teacher evaluation processes they want is soon to be in place (90 days after the end of the legislative session, so around the beginning of the 2011-12 school year).

As far as I know, MEA has yet to say a word about this conundrum. So, here’s my two-cents worth.

Dear MEA local affiliate Presidents and Negotiators, these are the two terms you need to know, understand and employ:

  • Meet and Consult
  • Impact Bargain

If you don’t know what those mean or how to make them work, NOW is the time to learn.  You can check my previous blog posts for the Meet and Consult legal requirements.  I’ll be discussing “impact bargaining” in the weeks to come.  You should also check with your region’s UniServ Director for any recommendations MEA may develop about this difficult and touchy subject.

Best,

Nancy

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Sitting on the Dock of the Bay …

A May 9th post entitled “Setting high standards, and sticking to them” by Maine Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen at the Maine Department of Education Newsroom prompted me to reply there.  However, the webpage advises: LEAVE A REPLY WITH YOUR COMMENTS. WE’LL SHARE THEM IN FUTURE POSTS.  Not being content with that, I’m using my own virtual space to post the thoughts I did there:

It is worrisome that Mr. Bowen and the Maine DoE continue to recite the tired old adage, “.. students [shouldn’t be] considered proficient in English simply because they’ve sat through four years of high school English classes.”

Two problems:

•  “Proficiency” is too high a standard. Very few people in any field are experts at it. Why we would expect students to master every possible subject has not been explained.

•  Proficiency based on 4 years of “sitting in a classroom”. I would hope you would be thinking more highly of Maine’s teachers than that. No teacher gives a passing grade to a student who has merely SAT in the classroom. Teachers provide lessons, instruction, assessments, tutoring, strategies, opportunities for collaborative learning and more. If a student does not achieve at least some demonstrable amount of learning, s/he is not passed on to the next grade or class. There are occasional instances of principals and/or superintendents who override a teacher’s grade for any of a variety of reasons, but they are few and far between.

Standards-based learning sounds wonderful. But I have not yet seen an example of it working in a comprehensive, statewide public education system. I hope Maine does not go down the road of implementing an unproven strategy before it is ready.”

The Maine DoE News later tweeted “Nice explainer about proficiency-based (aka standards-based) diploma from our partners @newenglandssc http://bit.ly/lzofkT.  The referenced document is a one-page hand-out from the New England Secondary School Consortium which creates the impression that most teaching and learning is purely linear, rather than random, networked, messy and subjective.  Mr. Bowen’s own post explains that in a standards-based system, “…students would only advance to the next level once they’ve met the standard, or demonstrated they’re proficient in a particular skill.”

Whether or not Maine implements a standards-based diploma in the near future (the idea has been around since 1997 when the Learning Results were first published), my primary concern with Mr. Bowen’s comments has to do with this idea that all kids just sit through classes (doing their nails? sleeping? tweeting?), get promoted and graduate from high school – without putting in a lick of work or learning a darned thing.  It’s not true.

Yes, I’m sure a few students manage to get through school without doing a whole lot of anything.  Almost every teacher can tell you a story about the kid whose parents complained about the work being too hard and how poor Johnny can’t get a fair shake from bad old Mr./Ms. WhatsIt and so the principal sighs, “Just give him a 70 and let’s move on”.

Many teachers will also have tales of students who couldn’t put together a grammatically-correct sentence while in the classroom but miraculously produce 25-page research papers of such depth and scope as to take your breath away when at home (where Mom and Dad just happen to be).  But those cases are unusual (I hope).

The reality is that most teachers work very hard to engage their students every day for 175 (or more) days per year.  Most students respect those teachers and also put in a full year’s work to learn what’s important.  Yes, they get grades.  Yes, they get a credit for the class.  But to say that they aren’t proficient (or, preferably, competent) because of that is detrimental and demeaning to the Maine public education system for which Mr. Bowen is now responsible.

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Retirement Concerns for Maine Educators

A Bangor Daily News article last week pointed out what at least one Maine school superintendent is doing in response to Maine Governor Paul LePage’s proposals around teacher and state employee retirement.  Dr. O’Neill is being proactive and making the best deal he can for himself given the current, uncertain, state of affairs.

Many Collective Bargaining Agreements contain a deadline – some already past – about educators notifying the school system of their retirement so as to collect the equivalent of up to 30 days unused sick leave to be put toward their final earnings calculations [5 MRSA 17006(13)(B)].

Given the Governor’s proposals, the question local Associations – who represent large numbers of active teachers and other school professionals around Maine, but not superintendents – in the immediacy should be: what can we do, via the collective bargaining process, to protect our members?

When I put this very basic question out there via the Save Our Retirement group on Facebook, the following exchange occurred:

Me: I can only hope that MEA has already provided advice to local Associations on this matter so their members will be as protected as possible given the situation. I hope, but doubt.

[Member]: Nancy, haven’t heard a thing.

Blakney: Given that there is no rehiring plan as of yet (Sawin [Millett, Maine’s Commissioner of Department of Administrative & Financial Services] said last Friday they hadn’t yet come up with a plan and got laughed at) from the LePage admin, it would be difficult to provide guidance.

Joyce Blakney is the Treasurer of the Maine Education Association.  I completely disagree with her that it is “difficult to provide guidance” in this situation.  Certainly it would not be possible to solve address every concern, but not provide guidance? Come on.

So, recognizing that I am simply a retired kibbitzer, here’s my thought on possible language that could be negotiated between local Associations and school board/committees that would – at least – give teachers and other school professionals as much as time as possible to make such an important and personal decision as retiring, particularly when they may not be ready to do so under normal circumstances:

ADDENDUM to the COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGREEMENT:

Despite any contract language to the contrary, for the 2010-2011 school year any bargaining unit member considering retirement must submit a Letter of Intent to Retire to the Superintendent of Schools and School Board/Committee no later than the final day of the school year.

The unit member will provide written notification to the Office of the Superintendent of his/her final decision to retire, or not to retire, within seven days of the Governor’s signature on whatever bill that makes changes to the current Maine Public Employees Retirement System language for teachers in the State of Maine [5 MRSA 17001, et seq].

All other benefits of the collective bargaining agreement will apply to a bargaining unit member who chooses to retire under the provisions of this agreement.

Obviously, there are lots of tweaks that could be made to this, but the basic concept should provide some breathing room for teachers and other professionals so long as it is in place sooner rather than later.  Any member or local Association leader thinking about this, please contact your area’s UniServ Director for further information.

Footnote: MEA’s lobbyist, Steve Crouse, was a member of the Unified Retirement Plan Task Force that issued a report just about a year ago.  According to the Executive Summary, “The purpose of this report is to respond to the reporting requirement of Maine State Resolve 111, “To Reform Public Retirement Benefits and Eliminate Social Security Offsets” passed in May, 2009, by the 124th Legislature. The reason for the legislation is to design a unified pension and health benefit plan for all state employees and teachers who are first employed after December 31, 2010 with no prior creditable service.” Clearly the issue of pension reform – and therefore potential impacts – is not a surprise to anyone, particularly MEA.

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Meet and Consult, Part II

You may remember the following scenario in relation to the question of “What is Meet and Consult”?

A newly-hired elementary school (300 kids, 15 classroom teachers and 5 others) principal wants to institute a different math/science curriculum.  She talks it over with the superintendent who says, “Makes sense to me; go ahead and take a look at options.” Over coffee a few days later, she mentions her idea to two teachers.  She then orders a complete set of new textbooks with related audiovisuals, computer programs and more for all the classrooms based on her experiences with it at her previous school.  The materials arrive in early June and she proudly announces at the final staff meeting of the year, “You’re going to love this system; we’ll all need to get on board with the new curriculum next year.  It will take some time to get used to it, but we’ll work together to iron out any bugs.”

I also posted the M&C requirements as laid out in the 1982 MLRB case, Southern Aroostook:

The purpose of the meet and consult obligation is to ensure that school committees consider their employees’ comments and concerns before implementing or changing educational policy.  The duty to meet and consult thus is a mechanism  for insuring employee input in non-negotiable policy areas, designed to further the Act’s purpose of improving the relationship between school committees and their employees.  Several elements are necessary to carry out the purpose of the meet and consult obligation:

1.  Notice that a change in educational policy is planned must be given to the bargaining agent, so that it can timely invoke the meet and consult process if employees wish to comment on the changes;

2.  Pertinent information about the planned change must be provided so that the bargaining agent and employees can understand the change and make constructive comments about it.

3.   Actual meeting and consulting at reasonable times and places about the planned change must occur upon receipt of a ten day notice or other request to meet and consult by the bargaining agent.  A school committee is obligated to come to meet and consult sessions with an open mind, to discuss the planned change openly and honestly, and to listen to the employees’ suggestions and concerns.

4.  Mature consideration must be given to the employees’ input before the change is implemented, and if any of the employees’ comments or concerns are meritorious, the school committee must decide in good faith whether they can be accommodated.

So, let’s think about the scenario and run it through the requirements:

First, is the matter one of “educational policy”? Yes.  Curriculum is clearly a matter for the school committee/board; it is not directly negotiable.

SIDEBAR: how did the principal manage to make a change in a matter of educational policy without the board/committee being involved? It happens all the time. School boards/committees typically meet monthly, sometimes biweekly, for about 2-3 hours.  They leave most day-to-day issues to the superintendent and administrative staff.  After a while, no one blinks an eye when new routines are implemented, or textbooks bought, or schedules changed without the school board/committee having any idea.

Back to the Southern Aroostook requirements:

1a. Notice (by the school committee) that a change in educational policy is planned must be given to the bargaining agent:

  1. Nope.
  2. Even if the Association President had been one of the two teachers, a mention over coffee is hardly “notice” in the formal collective bargaining sense of the word.

1b. The bargaining agent [must have time to] invoke the meet and consult process if employees wish to comment on the changes.

  1. Again, no. The bargaining agent (Association) didn’t know, so they couldn’t do anything.
  2. Even if they had figured it out, they can’t meet and consult with the Principal (or even the superintendent), only the school board/committee.
  3. And, even if they had figured it out and asked to meet and consult with the school board/committee, the response would most likely have been, “What the heck are you talking about?” or a variation thereof.

I’m sure you get my drift – the M&C process doesn’t work with a relatively informal change, no matter how important – so let’s not go any further into the requirements as they apply to this scenario, but rather think about what might have happened had this been a Committee/Board level policy.

The first thing to remember is that the Association and the Board/Committee would not have been negotiating the IMPACT of the policy change on the teachers; that’s another post entirely.  They would have been talking about whether or not:

  • the policy made sense in this school
  • it was good for students
  • it would help increase student learning
  • it would benefit all students equally
  • and other considerations of this sort

Had the bargaining agent (Association) had the opportunity to talk with teachers, they might have found that some teachers might have:

  • had experience (good or bad) with the proposed system
  • had experience (good or bad) with other curriculum systems
  • preferred to do more research before making a decision
  • thought the current system was working just fine
  • been worried that the proposed system would be too difficult for their special education students, or not challenging enough for the gifted ones.

The Association could then have met with the school committee/board and raised these points.  They might even have proposed an alternative which the school committee/board could have adopted in place of the principal’s plan.

It’s those sorts of issues that the MLRB had in mind when it said the purpose of the meet and consult process was … improving the relationship between school committees and their employees.

So, next time, we’ll go back to the teacher evaluation bill (LD 391) and think about the meet and consult process in that context.

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