A better yardstick for judging schools

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A new statewide evaluation system for teachers and principals will help Maine qualify for “Race to the Top” federal school funding.

That’s good, but the criteria adopted must seem cruelly ironic to the handful of school principals around the state who are losing their jobs to qualify for a different federal program.

In May, 10 schools in the state were identified as “persistently low-performing,” including Livermore Falls High School and Longley Elementary School in Lewiston, using test-score-based criteria.

Seven of the 10 schools decided to put their pride aside and apply for the federal money. Three other high schools — Houlton, Hodgdon and Madison Area — rejected the opportunity.

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The participating schools now will be eligible to share $9 million in federal funding. Most are, however, required to remove the school’s principal to qualify.

Good or bad, the principal goes. This idea might have looked smart to a bureaucrat in Washington angling to guarantee a school fresh leadership.

However, it was a broad sword that discounted many factors that might account for a school’s problems.

Longley Elementary, where Tom Hood has been principal for 12 years, is a perfect example.

An estimated 96 percent of Longley’s students live in poverty, and 62 percent are foreign immigrants, compared to 3 percent statewide.

What’s more, the school’s population is constantly changing. Of the 33 students in third grade, only six have been at the school since kindergarten.

Language, culture, mobility, poverty — Longley’s teachers and principal face a host of handicaps.

Regardless of past performance, Hood will go, all to satisfy this one-size-fits-all test-score policy.

Contrast that with the new evaluation policy being developed for Maine by a group of stakeholders that includes teachers, principals and state education officials.

While that yardstick is not yet finalized, it will take into account student “growth,” defined as an individual student’s progress or achievement over the course of a year.

What counts is improvement over time, rather than everyone in the class meeting a single standard.

That’s only fair, since neither a teacher nor principal can control the capabilities of a student entering the classroom. The goal should be moving that student a grade level or more forward by the end of that school year, regardless of their starting point.

Critics of public education sometimes seem to assume that every child shows up like a perfect learning robot, performing at grade level with parental support and ready to learn.

In the real world, some children arrive with a collection of learning hurdles outside a teacher’s control.

Is that child loved? Does he speak English? Has he ever been in a classroom? Is he living with both parents, or even one parent? Are they living in a home? Is he hungry? Had enough sleep? In fear of domestic violence or sexual abuse?

All of these problems distract from a child’s capacity to learn, and nearly all of them are exacerbated by poverty and rootlessness.

Are there lazy or incompetent teachers and principals out there? Yes. We hope the new evaluation system roots them out.

There are good ones, too, and it is imperative we know the difference.

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