Maine's New Education Chief Lays Out Agenda

Maine's New Education Chief Lays Out Agenda
Reported By: Jay Field, MPBN

[partial transcript]


BOWEN: Education is a business that is prone to the silver bullet. We've adopted standards, we've done district consolidation, we've tried a number of other sort of approaches, and yet on the student achievement indicators we don't seem to have moved the needle very much.

MPBN: You wrote an article suggesting that Maine consider adopting a teacher evaluation system used in New Haven, Connecticut public schools that rates teachers on classroom teaching skills and how much academic improvement their kids are showing over time. Should Maine move to a system that ties teacher evaluation to student classroom performance?

BOWEN: ...As the New Haven model does. It uses classroom performance as an indicator. It's looking at what's the data showing us in terms of student achievement, student learning growth when they're in the care of the teacher and it's using it as an element that's part of an overall evaluation process that looks at a whole host of measures. Because we know that there's a lot of pieces that go into effective teaching.

MPBN: Will we see legislation this year that incorporates changes to teacher evaluation in Maine?

BOWEN: Well, actually the bill we were just discussing downstairs allows the Department of Education to review and propose different models to put them out for districts to look at. We've got a stakeholders group that's made up of superintendents, principals, and teachers whose job it is to look at these evaluation models, to review them and make recommendations. I don't believe that the Department is going to put forward a model that all districts must use.

MPBN: Should Maine do away with teacher tenure?

BOWEN: Well, that isn't really a thing that we've discussed a whole lot. I would say that when I discussed it with Governor LePage, Governor LePage is not a big fan of teacher tenure. I would like to see tenure become more - less a sort of automatic process where after two years, if the board decides to keep you, you get to stay on a you have essentially a tenured position moving forward. It really should mean something. It should be a recognition that certain educators in the building are educational leaders. So I think, you know there's going to be a lot of discussion around this obviously, but I think it's time we take a look at the tenure model. What does it mean and what do we want it to mean? How can we use it to advance instructional practice? That kind of thing.

MPBN: The idea of merit pay for teachers - should Maine give teachers cash bonuses when their kids show demonstrated improvement in the classroom?

BOWEN: I'm not one that thinks that if we put a merit pay system in place somehow teachers are going to work harder or do some things that they're not doing now. There's retirement incentives being proposed in the Legislature that, if those go forward, we may have literally hundreds and hundreds of teachers retiring over the next few years. We've got to compete with private employers to get the most effective, most highly talented people we can into the classroom and I think we need to have a compensation system that is going to attract them.

MPBN: As we saw on Friday, union teachers are worried and angry about the possibility of having retirement and healthcare benefits cut. Is it fair to ask teachers to make these kinds of sacrifices when you also ideally would like to convince them to embrace a range of reforms that will change how they do their jobs?

BOWEN: The decisions and the proposals around the pension are coming from the pension system. What the Governor is proposing cuts those long-term obligations by literally hundreds of millions of dollars - billions of dollars over time. So I understand that there's concern about that. But, regardless of what happens with that, we want to move forward on the Department side to do what we can to improve instructional practice to make sure that teachers are getting the training and support that they meed and that's going to be a huge focus for us.

MPBN: Will Maine see a charter school law passed this year?

BOWEN: Well, as I say, I think the politics are different than they were. Governor LePage is a strong supporter of charter schools and I think certainly the administration is supportive, the Department is supportive, and we're going to work to make that happen.

MPBN: Will the money that's in the budget be enough to prevent layoffs and other cost-cutting in some districts that are struggling financially?

BOWEN: Almost certainly not. We can't replace all of the loss of that federal money. So we already know that there are districts that are looking at layoffs and looking at other cut-backs simply because we don't have the resources on the state side to compensate for the loss of the federal stimulus money.

Bowen as Commissioner

This interview suggests a new, improved Steve Bowen - calmer, more reflective and less sharp. That being said, it's only the first of many, and interviews don't necessarily reveal the true agenda behind the words. Maine can only hope that he will have Sue Gendron's political savvy, but a more inclusive (I know, I know - this IS LePage's administration) style.

For example, I worry that he uses the word "teachers" in reference to representation on the Stakeholders Group. First, there are only two people from the Maine Education Association compared to two each from MSMA, MSBA, etc. Second, those two individuals are not teachers: Mark Gray (MEA's ED) has never been an educator, and Chris Galgay (MEA's President) hasn't been part of a classroom in half-a-decade. Third, there is no evidence that either man has asked rank-and-file members about their views on the subject OR reported back what has happened at any of the meetings until well after that information has been in the newspapers (if ever).

I hope Mr. Bowen reaches out to real teachers, educators, support staff and other school-based workers and develops policies and actions after listening to their thoughts, not just those of a few people from Augusta.