August 26, 2013

Maine schools turn to each other to improve under A-F grading system

By Susan McMillan
Staff Writer

Schools want to learn from each other.

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Fifth-grade teacher Michael Louder works in a small group with students at Canaan Elementary School during a reading workshop May 31. The school was one of two in Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54 that Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen visited that day. The school received a B grade under Gov. Paul LePage's A-F school grading system.

Staff file photo by Rachel Ohm

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Kindergarten teacher Nancy Stover organizes her classroom on Aug. 20 at Dresden Elementary School.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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Local school leaders say they haven't received much help from the state, while the state Department of Education says it is hamstrung by the Legislature, which failed to provide needed funding. Also, see what parents and real estate agents have to say about the grades.


Nearly half of the high schools that received Ds and Fs were penalized because not enough of their students took the Maine High School Assessment. Local principals say they do everything they can to encourage students to take the test, but they can't force students to give up a Saturday.


Some schools earned good grades and may provide direction for those that didn't fare as well. What was the key to getting a top grade?


Gov. Paul LePage implemented the grading system without a state law to go along with it, so it could be discontinued at any time once the governor leaves office. Is there enough support for the system in Maine to continue it even if the political winds blow in a different direction?

That's one of the biggest themes to emerge from the Department of Education's followup efforts on the release of a controversial A-F grading system for Maine public schools.

School leaders have told department staff that they want more information about best practices and how demographically similar schools are improving student achievement.

The department has already highlighted some schools in the region, such as Canaan and Bloomfield elementary schools in Regional School Unit 54, which has used a school improvement grant to put an academic coach in every elementary school in the district to help teachers.

But there are still other schools that bucked the trend of low-income schools receiving low grades, or that didn't receive good grades but have bright spots in their data. These schools could receive attention from other districts or from state officials looking for programs, practices or curriculum that can be duplicated elsewhere.

A section of the Department of Education website called the Center for Best Practice includes case studies, vdeos and other resources from several districts implementing an educational model that state officials are touting, called proficiency-based education.

The department's regional and content-area specialists are looking for promising practices so that schools looking for help with something specific can be pointed toward those examples.

Leaders of schools that scored well on the report card have theories about the factors in their success, but it's difficult to know for sure.

"We've all been thinking here about what exactly it was that teachers did and parents and kids did that helped us get that," said Mary Helen Williams, principal of Dresden Elementary, an A school. "If people knew the answer to it, we'd all be doing it at the same time."

Dresden Elementary's eligibility rate for free and reduced lunch — a commonly used way to measure poverty in schools — was 48.9 percent in 2011-12, about 5 percentage points higher than the state's overall rate. Because standardized test scores are linked with socioeconomic status, relatively few schools with significant poverty received top grades.

Williams said the proficiency-based model of education being adopted in Dresden's district, Regional School Unit 2, ensures that everyone stays on top of students' progress and individual weaknesses.

"The beauty of the measurement topics, I think, is that teachers and students and parents know exactly the information that we're all responsible for and the basic timeline for getting it done," Williams said. "A kid coming into fourth grade is going to know what he or she has to cover. Parents can expect kids to get proficient on most if not all of those learning targets. Teachers like that, for the most part, and I think kids do, too."

In proficiency-based education, the curriculum is broken down into topics and skills, and students must demonstrate proficiency on each one before proceeding to the next. Students can move through the curriculum at different paces and may not be grouped by age or grade level.

Williams credits the hard work of Dresden's teachers and the involvement of parents, but like the district-wide proficiency-based model, she said those are also present at other RSU 2 schools that received lower grades. That includes Marcia Buker Elementary in Richmond, where Williams is also principal.

"Marcia Buker has also got terrific community involvement," she said. "We've got packed houses for art shows and concerts. We had a C, we didn't have an A."

Williams said the fourth- and fifth-grade teachers at Dresden have decided to teach their strengths, with one teaching English and social studies to students in both grades, and the other teaching science and math.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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The learning targets board in Roberta Hart's first-grade classroom, which will be filled in with students' names as they master those skills, is seen in a photo taken on Aug. 20 at Dresden Elementary School.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan


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