Staying the course

By Maria Libby | Feb 11, 2016

Within the past few years, there have been three major educational initiatives at the state level that have had a significant impact on the focus of our work in schools.

These three initiatives are a shift to Common Core standards in Math and English Language Arts, the passage of the Proficiency Based Diploma law, and the passage of the Educator Effectiveness law (teacher and administrator evaluation). In the past, when there have been major state education initiatives, there is a pattern that looks like this: state requires schools to implement change, individual schools seek guidance from the state, state is concurrently working to figure out how to implement initiative or changes approach mid-stream, schools get frustrated and overwhelmed after a great deal of time and resources are expended (wasted?) around the state, state backs off initial requirement and initiative fades away. The Local Assessment System is a classic example of this. It was a disaster to try to implement school-by-school and was eventually dropped. Using the SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) as our state test was another from just last year.

Understandably, people in the system become disenfranchised with this pattern. Most teachers and administrators suffer from initiative fatigue, many become skeptical of any changes being imposed by the state, and others become intentionally complacent, opting to “wait it out." None of these responses puts schools at a strategic advantage or moving forward however. That is why our goal in the Five Town CSD and MSAD 28 is instead to be in the drivers seat when it comes to school improvement in a way that genuinely promotes our long-term vision while keeping our schools in compliance with state mandates. We do this by focusing first and foremost on the parts of the state mandate that synchronize with what we are already doing and we put most of our energy into figuring out those components. That is where we find the most value. It also leaves us less exposed to the shifting tides.

Our approach to all three of the recent state initiatives has been the same. We first evaluate the educational merits of the initiative and compare them with our current priorities. We look for connections and overlap and figure out how to dovetail the work. We always focus on the parts that will do the most to improve student learning in the classroom. With that approach, even if the state changes course or drops an initiative, our time will not have been wasted and our direction will remain steady.

The three recent state initiatives are currently in varying degrees of flux, a situation that will come as no surprise to the skeptics among us. There are current bills to shift state standards away from the Common Core and to change Proficiency Based Diplomas. The federal passage of the ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) does away with the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) legislation that required student achievement data to be a part of teacher and principal evaluation systems. Therefore, the state is free to change the Educator Effectiveness law which was based on NCLB. We are waiting to see the results of these new developments.

In the meantime, however, our districts are well underway in implementing the CCSS (Common Core State Standards) and will stick with them regardless because we feel there is a lot of value in them. They are rigorous standards that offer valuable curriculum guidance for teachers and we have put a lot of work into them. If Maine ever moved away from them, new standards would inevitably be less rigorous, so we know we’d be “safe” in keeping the higher standards. We have already done this in Science where our districts’ standards are modeled after NGSS (Next Gen Science Standards) – a set of national standards that are more rigorous than the current state standards.

We were also working toward a proficiency-based system of education before the Proficiency Based Diploma law came into being. We have done a tremendous amount of work at the K-12 level across all five towns on this the past three to five years and have no intention of altering course even if the state diploma requirements change. Finally, to comply with the “professional practices” piece of the Educator Effectiveness law, we chose an evaluation tool that aligned to the instructional framework (Marzano) our districts had adopted prior to the law. We focused on instructional practices first because we were already engaged in that work. We held off on determining exactly how to incorporate student data into evaluations because that was the least valuable and least viable aspect of the work for us. Now, use of student data is the most likely part of the law to change. The strategy of focusing on the aspect of a new mandate that is the most meaningful for student learning and is aligned to our priority areas is proving to be highly effective.

I share all this for two reasons. First, I want the community to know that we are basically staying the course on these three major initiatives. We may tweak pieces according to changes in the law, but we believe in them philosophically as education professionals. Second, I want the community to know that we are thinking strategically about the work we are doing. We are not caught in the trap of complacency. We are not jaded by history. We are thoughtful in our approach. We prioritize and stay focused after analyzing what work will be the most valuable and enduring. We have control of our ship.

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