Friday, January 21

The more things change...?

I had no idea the blog had gone quiet for two whole weeks - the number of words I type on a daily basis has certainly increased, not decreased...but they've nearly all been in the service of trying to line up a first site for a Maine Enterprise School.

InnovationMaine started in June as part of a consulting and advocacy contract with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools that ran it's course Dec. 31. I do intend to keep writing; how frequently I can post we'll have to see. But with the last bit of proposal writing done for now, I find myself with a few minutes to reflect: what has changed in the six months since I started writing, what's the same, and what might the future hold?

The same:
At least three school superintendents have told me in the last month or so, "I know we should, but we can't." Add that to the who-knows-how-many have said that over the years, and you might think I'd give up.
Changed: Two of those three subsequently said, "As soon as a charter law passes, I'll have the cover I need to allow you to bring these ideas in front of my board." That raises from 3 to 5 the number of folks who have now said that. That's change I can believe in.

Same: With the exception of politicians and political appointments, most of the gatekeepers of education policy will be the same - the senior staffers at the Maine Department of Education. These folks oversee the often arcane but crucial matters that allow (and, yes, at times obstruct) the work of Maine's educators. The fact that they'll be staying on is largely a good thing...see below.
Changed: The arena in which they'll apply their considerable knowledge and skill in school financing, teacher certification and accountability, student assessment is more wide open than it had been in years. While it is easy to demonize the DOE (and I've certainly been critical at times) there are some hugely talented folks who, like the superintendents above, are beginning to see openings that simply were not there before.

Same: The challenge of winning political approval for approaches that work equally well in the "two" Maines - perhaps defined as "within an hour of Portland," and "everywhere else." While that generalization only goes so far, the debate over school consolidation made clear that educational policy in more rural and less affluent parts of Maine tends to be governed by a different set of political, taxation, employment, and cultural realities.
Changed: The Republican sweep - Governor and both Houses - is likely to undo at least some of the perceived losses for communities hardest hit by consolidation. Whether there were "gains" at all, and whether, if so, those will be undone as well, remains to be seen.

Same: Lots of folks working hard every day to do the best they possibly can for kids - often in spite of "the system."
Changed: Too early to tell whether opportunity for dramatic system change will produce the kinds of long-term innovations that, quite frankly, WERE being made under Governor King - and were not under Governor Baldacci. Governor LePage has not named an Education Commissioner yet, and with the exception of the "five-year high schools," I wrote about a couple weeks ago, not too many specifics are emerging. The tea leaves I'm reading say this:
  • We'll have a charter school bill of some kind, and we'll have it fairly early in this session. If our work with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools pays off, and we think it will, we'll have a bill that builds in the vast majority of their 20 recommendations for model charter authorizing legislation. Unless...
  • I'll write about this separately, but re-opening the consolidation debate, while necessary, could crowd out just about everything else having to do with it has in the past two legislatures. Here's one voice for linking any conversation about consolidation NOT just to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic (again) but to the overall question of what we want our schools to do, how well they are doing it, and how the flow of dollars helps, or (yes) hinders the best possible outcomes for the most kids.
  • We'll have a bill that addresses teacher accountability, but by the time it passes, it will either make little difference or do more harm than good. Why? LONG story, but most of the approaches being discussed over-emphasize standardized test scores and are designed for the kind of batch-processing schools we need fewer of, not more of. There are systems that can work - ones that emphasize teaching, not testing - but such systems depend on a profoundly different set of assumptions about what kinds of learners we want to produce.
  • At some point, any progress being made towards genuine "reform" - and there will be real progress - will be derailed by some sort of social issue legislation. Mr. LePage has made it clear that he's going to play to his base, and that base will, sooner or later, demand something that has NOTHING to do with learning. Here's hoping that I'm wrong, or that if not, we get some real work done first - work that makes a difference for our young people.
Over the next few months, as bills get introduced, debated, revised, and eventually voted on, I'll continue to try to what I set out to: take the debate about education policy out of the realm of slogans and partisan or organizational interest. Almost every issue that will come before the legislature will have both a "system" component and a "rubber hits the road" component. I'll try to zoom out or zoom in as each issue arises, in the firm knowledge that we CAN, as Mainers always have, make more from less.

Please continue to send comments, suggestions, and the occasional (civil) challenge - many thanks to those of you who've written in so far. One of my great fears when I started writing this was the kind of vitriol I had seen on other forums, and there has been NONE of that here. So thanks for helping me keep this about ideas and kids, and I look forward to...umm.... looking back again in another six months.

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