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Aurora Institute

Sustained Change, Continuous Improvement

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education

Stephen Bowen, commissioner of education for Maine;
Stephen Bowen, commissioner of education for Maine;

In the same week that I heard that Maine’s Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen was stepping down to lead the Council of Chief State School Officer’s Innovation Lab Network, the Maine DOE’s Center for Best Practice released its latest case study,  Sustained Change, Continuous Improvement, focusing on the transformational efforts of Regional School Unit 16 (Mechanic Falls, Minot, and Poland).

Bowen’s career shift promises that the direction of the ILN will be sustained and a continuation of his leadership for personalized, proficiency-based education. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more emphasis at the ILN on adaptive leadership and leveraging systemic reforms as compared to piloting new practices.

However, his departure raises questions about the future direction for Maine. It’s one of the leading states in competency education, but there is a cadre of folks in influential positions that are not advocates for the Common Core.  So Maine could find itself using a different set of standards to shape learning trajectories and design competencies.  The person appointed by the Governor to replace Bowen has a lot of choices – to continue to support personalized, proficiency-based education, the primary education policy passed by the state legislature is one. Or they may simply push new agendas and allow districts to continue the work. Worst-case scenario, there is an effort to dismantle the investments of the past decade.

The case study Sustained Change, Continuous Improvement highlights the three steps forward and one step back that takes place in any major reform. Changeover in staff, trying to modify a current information system only to find that it is entirely inadequate, pressure from parents, and the time it takes to get new systemic practices like grading into working order are all covered in the case study.  The overarching theme is that when the shared vision is to do the right thing for students and their learning, adults will continue to learn, tweak, and when necessary, take a step back. Any school or district in the process of converting to competency-based can benefit from taking short pauses to reflect on their data, challenging themselves on how well their new operations and practices are benefiting low-income or traditionally under-served students and confronting the practices that are keeping inequity in place. For example, as mentioned in the case study, standards-referenced grading isn’t going to make a huge difference if students keep getting moved on to the next course without becoming proficient.

Having visited several schools in Maine and gotten to know many of their leaders from teachers on up, I don’t think any changes at the state level will be allowed to stop the moral imperative to make sure every student — each and every student — is making progress on their learning trajectories. This may be a chance for a step back, a step sideways, or, who knows, maybe we’ll see Maine taking another giant step forward.