The Great A-F Debate:
Focusing on our students
By Gov. Paul LePage
We encourage our children to aspire to be great, to set goals and achieve them, to work hard and learn from mistakes. We encourage our children to overcome challenges, to not fear the unknown, to dare to dream. At the end of the day, we want for all of our children to experience the American Dream.
Our great nation’s Founding Fathers believed anyone could do anything, no matter how rich or poor, as long as the will was there. However, the equalizer that emboldens us to pursue and achieve the American Dream comes down to one thing: education.
Education lifted me from an abusive, impoverished family, enabling me to begin a life of my own. I often say that my life began at 18, and education was at the heart of the journey I was about to embark upon. I had mentors along the way, and even got some motivation from a high school guidance counselor who suggested I take a job as a painter (and no, not on canvas). Forty years later, I credit my learning experiences for my modest success as a businessman, mayor and as your governor. There have been many times I have failed over the years, and that is OK by me. With each failure there is always a lesson learned.
Recently, I released the Maine Performance Grading System for schools. It was no surprise this effort was labeled a failure. The Portland Press Herald (owned by a wealthy hedge fund manager who is married to Rep. Chellie Pingree) even belittled me, giving me an “F” for introducing these letter grades. Unfortunately, these editors are not unlike my high school guidance counselor, who mistakenly underestimated what the end goal was.
This is not about the Herald or me however. It is all about our students. But do not misconstrue these grades as a reflection of your child(s) grades or individual learning experience within his or her school. Designed to focus on transparency and continuous improvement in schools, this new school grading system is about ensuring that every single student has a quality education.
Maine is not the first state to issue grades to schools. In fact, a dozen states and New York City have implemented their own grading system. Maine’s A-F report card was generated with existing testing information, which gives you a snapshot of how schools are performing as a whole. It looks at the number of students who are performing on grade level in reading and math. We know not all children enter school at the same place in their learning so we have included a student growth measure tracking whether students are making a year’s-worth of learning over the course of the school year.
High school graduation rate and improvement in proficiency levels over time are additional factors we looked at for high schools. These factors do not tell the whole story about a school, and they are not designed to. Rather, the intent of the grading system is to give parents and the public a snapshot view of how our schools are doing.
News reports have pointed out that schools in Maine’s less affluent areas tend to have lower grades. What has been ignored, though, is that the grading system has also helped us identify high-achieving schools in those same communities. Nearly 80 percent of the students at Phillips Elementary, for example, qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, yet the school earned an “A” for its high achievement of its students.
Our goal is to learn from Phillips Elementary and schools like it, and to use those lessons learned to help other Maine schools do the same.
In fact, the state Department of Education is already gathering data on schools identified by the grading system — both high- and low-achieving schools — and has already started analyzing the data in order to better support those schools that are struggling. In coming weeks, the Department will be working with schools directly and, if the legislature approves my budget request, will be able to provide schools with the targeted resources they need to improve.
The old adage is “knowledge is power.” In addition to the report cards, we have created a powerful data resource website that enables parents, students and teachers to find out more about their school and how their performance compares to other Maine schools, districts and the entire state.
I want to thank everyone at the Department of Education for their work on the Maine Performance Grading System and the Online Data Resource Center. Researchers across the United States and across the globe are constantly exploring and analyzing public education to determine the success of certain practices, programs and initiatives; the relationship between spending on education and learner outcomes; and much more. The Department’s latest endeavor not only adds value to our educational system, but it empowers parents and communities to discover best practices, programs and initiatives that yield results within their own schools.
There is nothing political about educating our students. Now is the time to all work together to make their futures the best they can be.