Collaboration and compromise seem a bit harder to come by these days in Maine government. But a clear example of both last week in Augusta demonstrates the positive outcomes they can produce.
Just a couple weeks ago, Maine was at risk of becoming the third state to lose a waiver that allows it a pass on some of the most onerous — and unrealistic — requirements of federal education law and the associated consequences of falling short. Now, Maine is on track to have the federal government affix its seal of approval and renew this critical waiver.
The result is that Maine won’t face the consequences of reverting to a bureaucratically nightmarish and ineffective federal school improvement regime, and important work in Maine will continue with the development of new systems to consistently and meaningfully evaluate teachers’ job performance.
Negotiations last week involving Gov. Paul LePage’s Department of Education, the Maine Education Association and a Democratic legislator led to the deal — accepted by all sides and fast-tracked through the Maine Legislature — that allowed it to happen.
Since 2013, the federal government has granted Maine and most other states waivers from many requirements of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act signed by former President George W. Bush. As a result, states no longer face the requirement that 100 percent of students score proficient or better on standardized state math and English exams by 2014.
Falling short of that unrealistic requirement, which would likely have happened in all states, would have triggered a range of consequences: nearly all schools would have been labeled failing, they would have had to undertake highly specific — and largely ineffective — steps to improve, and states would have had little flexibility in deciding how they spend their federal education funds linked to No Child Left Behind.
In December, federal education officials warned Maine that they wouldn’t renew the state’s waiver from those requirements unless the state made changes to its teacher and principal performance evaluation rules to guarantee that the state’s standardized exams in math and English figured into teachers’ performance evaluations — a provision the MEA, Maine’s primary teachers’ union, opposed.
A number of MEA members opposed the Maine Department of Education’s legislative fix to the matter in a public hearing last week. But the MEA, the education department and Democratic Rep. Brian Hubbell of Bar Harbor were able to come to an agreement after the hearing.
“MEA went in there with the position that we could live with this one change,” said MEA President Lois Kilby-Chesley. “MEA cannot be the blocker on the waiver.”
The legislative fix changes little about the Maine three-year-old law governing how teachers’ and principals’ job performance is evaluated. It simply guarantees that the evaluation systems developed by local school districts take into account the state math and English assessments generally as one of a number of job performance measures.
The U.S. education system has long lacked effective, consistent, meaningful and serious performance evaluations for teachers that can genuinely help educators improve their craft. But this school year, Maine school districts are at work developing such evaluation systems. Under another part of the deal reached last week, school districts will likely have some extra time to finalize their evaluation systems: they’ll have until mid-July to develop their evaluations, and they will have all of the next school year to pilot them.
The compromise and collaboration among the LePage administration, the MEA and Hubbell allowed Maine educators to avoid the consequences of a reversion back to No Child Left Behind and allowed them more clarity and time to help them get job performance evaluations right.
Now, it’s up to educators across the state to work seriously on performance evaluations that are fair but meaningful — so Maine students have teachers and principals who have the tools to continue improving their all-important craft.