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Maine Education Commissioner Resigns

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Former Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen

Former Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen

AUGUSTA – Maine Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen unexpectedly announced his resignation on Friday.

Bowen, 44, is a Republican and former social studies teacher who served in the House of Representatives from 2002 to 2006, representing Camden and Rockport. He was a key campaign advisor to Gov. Paul R. LePage and joined his administration in 2011.

Bowen’s surprise departure from the administration he joined in 2011 follows the Aug. 1 resignation of Florida school chief Tony Bennett. Both Bennett and Bowen were members of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), a nationwide non-profit membership organization that has overseen the creation and implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). While Bennett resigned amid controversy, Bowen is headed onto the national education scene, leaving behind him a successful track record of major reforms in Maine.

According to a press release issued by the governor’s office, Bowen will become the director of innovation for CCSSO. His last day will be Sept. 12.

“This is not a step I take lightly,” Bowen wrote to the governor in his resignation letter, according to the release. “I firmly believe in the reform work we are doing here in Maine and I am confident that the reforms we have advanced, both in terms of education policy and in terms of how the Department of Education does its work to support schools and students, will lead to improved student outcomes.”

“I am pleased that Steve will be working to implement innovative practices throughout the nation’s educational systems,” said LePage in a written statement. “It is encouraging that a national organization committed to educational excellence has recognized Commissioner’s Bowen passion and dedication for improving schools and student outcomes.”

CCSSO Executive Director Chris Minnich welcomed Bowen on to his team. “We are thrilled to have Steve leading this very important work at CCSSO,” he said. “Steve has led Maine in developing some of the most innovative education in the country and we look forward to bringing his experience and leadership to the national level.”

Under Bowen’s leadership, Maine has adopted many controversial education reforms – from teacher and school evaluations to public charter schools. Perhaps the most controversial of Bowen’s education reforms has been the adoption of Common Core. [Disclosure: Stephen Bowen formerly worked for The Maine Heritage Policy Center, of which The Maine Wire is a news media project.]

Maine’s nascent anti-Common Core movement is likely to gain energy and prominence, as Bowen was Common Core’s biggest champion in the Pine Tree State.

The CCSS were developed as a joint project of CCSSO and the National Governors Association (NGA), and are a key component of President Barack Obama’s education agenda. Despite being marred by controversy, Common Core’s implementation has proceeded rapidly in 45 states, the District of Columbia, and 4 U.S. territories. The cost of implementing Common Core nationwide has been estimated at anywhere from $3 to $16 billion.

Over the summer, a group of parents and teachers organized No Common Core Maine (NCCM) in an attempt to spread awareness about a reform which they believe is taking Maine’s schools in the wrong direction. While NCCM members have differing views about education policy, they all believe that decisions regarding Maine’s schools should be made at the state and local level.

The group has set up a website, commoncoremaine.com, which the hope will allow parents to learn more about Common Core. According to the site, “The Common Core State Standards is an initiative funded by special interests and the federal government with the goal of nationalizing education. You may have heard that these are superior standards that are internationally benchmarked. You may have heard that the standards were created by the states, or that states retain local control over their own standards. These and many other things that you may have heard are simply not true.”

Prior to Friday’s announcement, Bowen told me that many people’s concerns over Common Core were unfounded. Specifically, he denied critics allegations that Common Core involves a nationally-determined curriculum, massive data collection on students, and the abridging of local control.

“Common Core isn’t curriculum, required reading lists or data collection and it most certainly isn’t the silver bullet that’s going to bring about the total reform our education system has long needed,” said Bowen. “The only silver bullet is constant improvement.”

“What Common Core provides is standards – a high bar that sets what our students should be achieving as they progress through our schools to ensure they graduate college and career ready,” he said. “How teachers go about helping students meet and exceed those standards is entirely a local decision and one the state has no interest or authority in making.”

“I’ve read the standards closely and there is nothing about them that concerns me, not just as the Commissioner of Education but as a father, a former social studies teacher and a conservative,” he said. “I believe these standards are more rigorous than the ones we previously had with the Maine Learning Results, and where we should be focusing our energies is in ensuring they are implemented effectively and that educators are held accountable for the student outcomes that I believe Common Core can help improve.”

Despite Bowen’s assurances that Common Core is not to be feared, the parents and taxpayers behind NCCM remain committed to blocking its implementation.

“Nothing changes,” said Ericka Russell, one of the parents leading the NCCM movement, after learning of Bowen’s resignation. “There are still plenty of people who need to wake up. We will continue our efforts until Common Core is out of Maine,” she said.

NCCM and the Maine Equal Rights Center have scheduled a joint press conference for Aug. 21 at noon where they intend to lay out their plan to bring Common Core to a referendum.

“We’re going to bring this to a referendum so the people can be heard,” she said.

The object of concern is not the Common Core standards themselves. While the rigor of the standards is up for debate, most if not all of them are common sense and uncontroversial. For example, the English and Language Arts standards require that first graders be able to “use illustrations and details in a story to describe its characters, setting, or events.” By grade four, students are expected to be able to correct capitalization, commas and quotation marks.

The concern, however, has everything to do with the Common Core-aligned testing. As the education mantra goes, he who writes the questions writes the curriculum.

The tests for Common Core have been developed primarily by two national testing consortia – the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). Maine has partnered with SBAC.

In the past year, Alabama, Oklahoma and Georgia have withdrawn from PARCC. In 2012, Utah backed out of a partnership with SBAC.

S.E. Robinson
Maine Wire Reporter
serobinson@themainewire.com

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson the editor of The Maine Wire. A native of Dexter, Maine, Robinson is a graduate of Bowdoin College.

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