Stephen Bowen’s Testimony

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This is the testimony that Stephen Bowen gave to the Education committee as they considered him for the position of Commissioner of Education at the Maine Department of Education.

Senator Langley, Representative Richardson, distinguished members of the committee.

My name is Stephen Bowen, and I am pleased and honored to be coming before you as Governor LePage’s nominee to be Commissioner of Education. My testimony today will be in three parts. I’ll begin with a brief description of my background, describe what I think we need to do in education over the next few years, and lay out for the committee my plan for getting us there.

As the committee undoubtedly knows, I currently serve as the senior policy advisor to Governor LePage on education issues. In that capacity, I have had the opportunity to meet with people from all over the state who have, as I do, a passion for making Maine’s schools better. I have also been able to spend a considerable amount talking both with members of this committee and with Governor LePage about what we can do here in Augusta to ensure that every Maine child has an outstanding education.

Prior to joining the administration, I directed the Center for Education Excellence at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a Portland-based public policy think tank. In my three-and-a-half years of work there, I researched and wrote dozens of policy briefs on issues from school consolidation and school funding to online learning and charter schools, authored countless op-eds, columns, and blog posts on education-related issues, and regularly presented the findings of my research to policymakers and the public.

Before to joining the Center in the summer of 2007, I served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives. This experience taught me about the development of public policy and gave me the opportunity to build relationships with many of the legislators and policymakers working in Augusta today. My proudest legislative achievement during my two terms was working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to enact a state salary supplement for teachers who have achieved certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The number of board certified teachers in Maine has more than doubled since then.

In order to serve in the legislature, I took leave from teaching social studies at the middle school in Camden, where I taught, with breaks for legislative service, from 2000 to 2007. I was teaching in Camden when the middle school laptops were first deployed to eighth graders in the fall of 2003, and it was there that I also experienced firsthand the state’s failed attempt to develop the Local Assessment System. I am, therefore, someone who has experienced the implementation of state education policy at the level where it matters most – the classroom.

I began my teaching career in Fairfax County Public Schools, as huge and highly successful school district in Northern Virginia. I taught there from 1997 to 2000, taking advantage of that district’s excellent teacher induction and professional development opportunities, and being part of that state’s development of a standards-based approach to education.

In sum, I have been working in education and public policy for 14 years, the last three of which were dedicated almost exclusively to the in-depth study of education policy. That experience, combined with nearly a decade of work as a classroom teacher, has given me a unique perspective on the development of education policy and its impact on teaching and learning in Maine’s schools.

Schools in Maine and across the nation are at a crossroads. For most of its history, our system of public schooling has responded relatively well to the increasing demands we’ve placed upon it. In the early days, when the system simply needed to provide people with basic educations, it did that. When it was later decided that more advanced levels of education were needed, high schools were built across the land. Later, it was decided that these schools should prepare students for college and careers, and the modern comprehensive high school was born. When Sputnik-era schools were asked to teach more science, they did. When schools were asked to teach children with complex learning disabilities, they did that as well.

Today, though, schools and the people who work in them are being asked to do something utterly unprecedented, which is to ensure that every student—not some, or even most, but every student—meets rigorous learning standards. This is something that no previous generation of educators has ever been asked to do, and while the past demands on our schools could be met by simply expanding programs and hiring more people—by building more science labs and creating more special education programs—the challenge before us today can only be met by fundamentally changing how we do the business of schooling.

There is simply no way that we can, as the American Enterprise Institute’s Fredrick Hess recently wrote, create a “world-class, 21st century system” of schools while still “retaining the job descriptions, governance arrangements, management practices, compensation strategies, licensure requirements and calendar of the existing system.” “When pursued with sufficient genius, energy, and advantages,” Hess writes, “our system of schooling can deliver in some places, at some times, and for some children, but the architecture of schooling makes it extraordinarily difficult to sustain or extend such successes.” We need change on a more fundamental level.

What we’ve been doing, though, is lurching from one “reform” to the next, without any real vision for where we want to go. It is important to point out that it is not as though we haven’t been trying; we’ve tried, and continue to try, all kinds of things. Teachers, school administrators and superintendents are working harder than ever, spending more time pouring over data, developing customized learning plans for more and more kids, and testing, testing, and testing some more. Yet we are simply not moving the needle. Too many of our kids drop out of school, and too many of the kids that do graduate are not prepared for college and careers.

In fact, if anything, we may be doing too much. When I talk to people about the state Department of Education, there is not only some concern expressed about the department’s capacity to do its job effectively, there is also a sense that the department is going in too many directions at once. My reading of the state’s Race to the Top application, about which I wrote a 15-part series of blog posts totaling more than 12,000 words, reinforced my own sense that the Department lacks a clear and coherent vision of its role in making Maine’s schools better.

So what do we need to do?

First, do no harm. Today, the Department is seen by the people in Maine schools as little more than a regulatory agency, and it struggles with basic functions like teacher certification. Step one is to undertake a careful analysis of the Department’s operations using evaluations from the Department itself, as well as feedback from the field and from stakeholders. From that feedback, we need to develop an interim plan to improve the Department’s efficiency and effectiveness.

Second, the new commissioner must undertake an aggressive effort to improve relationships with superintendents, school personnel, stakeholders, and the public. I propose to launch a listening tour that will take me to every superintendent region in the state within the next 100 days. These visits will include school visits and town hall meetings with parents and teachers. Additionally, I propose that we bring back stakeholder panels such as the Education Coordinating Committee, which is established in statute but has not met in recent memory. For the Department to be effective, we need to strengthen its connection to the people it serves.

Lastly, I propose that between this legislative session and the next we undertake an effort to establish a comprehensive plan for Maine’s education system. Are Maine’s schools moving in the right direction? Is the Department of Education achieving the outcomes we need it to achieve? It is almost impossible to know these things, because we have no roadmap for where we are going. As the old saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re headed, any road will get you there. We need to put a plan in place that drives education policy in a specific direction and focuses our state’s resources where they will have the biggest impact on kids.

In conclusion, I realize that I am not the traditional candidate for this job. Yet I think I would bring to the job a passion for education and education reform, an open mind and thoughtful manner, a capacity to communicate effectively and to work with others toward a common goal, and a strong desire to see Maine become a better place. I also know that the key to making Maine’s schools better is keeping a constant, unrelenting focus on what is best for kids.

My two girls are the ninth generation of my family to make Maine their home. If we don’t make some meaningful changes to the way Maine works, though—and soon—they will almost certainly be the last. Of my siblings and cousins in the eighth generation, I’m the only one that remains in Maine today.

There are many things that we need to do to turn Maine around, but building a world-class education system is among the most important. I will come to work every day with that intent in mind, and I will work tirelessly with other dedicated educators across the state to achieve it.

Thank you for your time and consideration, and I am happy to answer any questions.

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2 Responses to “Stephen Bowen’s Testimony”

  1. Chris Toy Says:

    Thanks for sharing this! It will be interesting to see how our new commissioner moves forward. I’m wondering how his background in the middle level classroom will inform support for best practices in middle level education as described in Bright Futures.

  2. Judy Enright Says:

    I found reading this encouraging…

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