Making the grade

Two recent studies examine academics and athletics in Portland's public schools
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  January 26, 2011


Portland students are struggling with reading at elementary and secondary levels, according to a report released last week. Meanwhile, the city's two high schools are close to achieving gender equity in athletic programs, says a separate report.

Both studies were conducted by outside agencies; both indicated areas where the school system is falling short; both made recommendations for improvements that could benefit kids in Portland.

On gender equity in athletics — examined at the high-school level — there are a few exceptions to the overall success of Deering and Portland high schools (some noted by the review, others not). On literacy — evaluated across elementary and secondary grade levels — the report card is direr, and the potential fixes more complicated.

Portland superintendent Jim Morse calls the literacy report "a pretty incredible document, likely to be a foundational instrument in curricular change in the system." And he says he'd much prefer to follow two comprehensive roadmaps now, rather than risking getting lost in the future.

"As superintendent I need to be anticipating, not reacting," he says. "We know we have these things we need to work on, so let's get our collective energy together and start working on them rather than waiting for someone to come in and say you're not doing the job."

Reading between the lines

Late last week, after more than six months of data collection, Portland Public Schools released a sweeping overview of students' literacy achievement in kindergarten through 12th grade, commissioned by the superintendent and completed by PCG Education, a Portsmouth-based firm.

The assessment of Maine's most diverse school district contained bright spots — that federal funding for disadvantaged, low-income students is being effectively used, for example, and that several schools have developed innovative, integrative literacy programs — and dim ones:

• Elementary school students are falling below proficiency standards set by the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP, a standardized testing mechanism that Maine started using in the fall of 2009), with scores lower than the state average, in some cases — third-graders show a particular dip in performance;

• Boys are trailing girls as they advance through middle and high school — which mirrors a national trend;

• "Portland teachers exhibit many strengths but there is great unevenness and inconsistency in how basic literacy and content literacy instruction is delivered as well as lack of a clear standards-based curriculum," according to an e-mail from Julie Meltzer, who led the six-month study for PCG Education.

The 150-page report is based on a combination of scores and statistics, interviews, focus groups, and online teacher surveys. Those showed that Portland teachers accurately perceive how their students are doing, Meltzer says — i.e., their qualitative assessments matched up with test scores. However, the data indicates that teaching and learning practices vary from school to school and even classroom to classroom, with significant problems in lower grades. This suggests a "need for more consistent district-wide approaches to literacy instruction and curricular emphasis across grade levels and the need for more teacher professional development in the areas of reading instruction, writing instruction, and content literacy," Meltzer says.

"It certainly spells out a lot of challenges," Morse admits. "But it's far more exciting than anything we've done since I've been here."

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