Pender Makin: From a whisper to a bullhorn

With bipartisan support and a potential funding windfall, Maine’s new education commissioner has ambitious goals and a drive to improve Maine’s schools.
Pender Makin poses for a photo while staring off into the distance
New Commissioner Pender Makin, who earned a reputation as a “kid whisperer” for her work as a principal at The REAL School on Mackworth Island and honors as Maine High School Principal of the Year in 2013, says her Education Department will be responsive to students, teachers and parents. Photo by Gabe Souza.

Better pay for teachers. Pre-kindergarten programs for all children. More money for local schools.

New Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin vows to push for these initiatives and said she faces another challenge — fighting the perception that Maine schools underperform, a frequent talking point of former Gov. Paul LePage.

“It harms everybody,” Makin said in an interview. “This myth about failing public schools … it harms students and the institutions. It harms economic development in those communities. The truth is, given what resources schools have, school systems are incredibly successful and are creating miracles every day in schools.”

Makin, 54, received bipartisan unanimous support from the Legislature’s Education Committee last month and was confirmed by the Maine Senate in early February. She’s spearheading a key part of Gov. Janet Mills’ agenda — a renewed focus on improving education in Maine that’s bolstered by significant proposed increases in funding for both K-12 education and the University of Maine System.

Mills’ proposed $8 billion, two-year budget would increase state spending at the Department of Education by about 12 percent, from $2.6 billion to $2.925 billion, according to budget documents released by the governor’s office. That does not include a proposed increase for the university system, which would get an additional 7.8 percent under Mills’ budget, going from $422,959,218 million to $455,809,061 million. All told, spending on education in Maine would be $3.5 billion and comprise 44 percent of all state spending, if lawmakers approve Mills’ budget as proposed.

In her budget address to lawmakers, Mills said the “Department of Education has suffered from years of neglect” and noted that since Makin stepped in as acting commissioner in December, the department has sped up the time it takes for teachers to be certified. What once took six months now takes less than six weeks, a change made possible by what Mills described as “staffing adjustments.”

“The Maine Department of Education will once again be a place that leads, inspires and fully supports our schools, teachers and students,” Mills said.

That hope for inspiration, particularly with regard to students and teachers, is shared by Maranacook Community School teacher Rep. Justin Fecteau (R-Augusta), a member of the Legislature’s Education Committee. He gives Makin high marks for her willingness to work with lawmakers, and he’s impressed with her background working in alternative education and with at-risk students.

A world-language teacher, Fecteau supports the initiative to make sure all teachers in Maine will make at least $40,000 a year. But he will closely monitor the implementation, noting that for some districts in rural Maine, the increase in base pay also will mean an increase in pay for all teachers out of fairness for those with more experience.

With regard to the overall state budget, Fecteau said he is still gathering information, but he is concerned that the $8 billion proposal appears to spend most, if not all, of the revenues that are projected to come in.

“I do have some concerns about spending most of every dollar we’re taking in,” he said.

While Mills and Makin will try to sell their vision and increased spending to lawmakers over the coming months during budget negotiations, some already are questioning whether Maine can afford to pump this much money into education so quickly. Mills said in her budget address that an additional $126 million in state education aid over two years, coupled with increases in revenue-sharing and the homestead exemption, should result in lower property taxes.

Jacob Posik, communications director of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, said he’s seen no evidence that putting more money into education at the state level leads to lower property taxes at the local level. As an example, he cited the additional $162 million in funding for K-12 education that was part of a compromise to end the state government shutdown in 2017.

I do have some concerns about spending most of every dollar we’re taking in.”

— Rep. Justin Fecteau (R-Augusta)

“Property taxpayers did not see a commensurate decrease,” he said.

Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, said part of what’s happened in recent years at the local level is that the state has cut municipal revenue-sharing from 5 percent to 2 percent. While cities and towns have had to continue to plow roads, provide emergency services and run elections, their funding from the state has been cut by 60 percent, he said. Also, he noted that K-12 education costs account for about 60-65 percent of property tax revenues statewide.

He said over the past eight to 10 years, “property taxes in most communities have risen” as a result of the loss in state funding. Mills’ budget proposes to increase the local share to 2.5 percent.

“That’s a good first step,” Conrad said. “It’s only a start, but it is important recognition and a step in the right direction.”

Like Fecteau, Posik also noted that setting the base teacher salary at $40,000 will mean more money is needed to boost the pay of other teachers. He’d like to see another push by the state to reduce administrative costs to offset some of the new spending.

“When you’re making a proposal like this, you would hope to see a savings somewhere else, maybe on the administrative end,” he said. “We’re all for sending more dollars to the classroom, letting teachers teach and really cutting overhead costs that don’t improve educational outcomes for students.”

The ‘kid whisperer’

Makin, a Scarborough resident who most recently served as assistant superintendent in Brunswick, was named Maine High School Principal of the Year in 2013 when she was principal of The REAL School, a therapeutic day school on Mackworth Island. Makin served as principal there for 12 years, leading a school that helped students who were homeless, in foster care or had been incarcerated, according to confirmation hearing testimony by Mary Anne Turowski, a senior advisor to Mills.

It was then that the Maine Principals’ Association gave her the name “kid whisperer,” Turowski said.

“Pender represents the best of both worlds: she has been a school administrator, as well as a classroom educator,” Turowski said. “Her years of teaching will remain foremost in her mind. She will not forget where she came from.”

She is clearly both admired and respected by educators.”

— Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association

Makin earned a master’s degree in educational leadership from the University of Southern Maine in 2008, following a 1991 bachelor’s degree in English, also from USM, according to her resume. When Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association, testified in support of Makin during her confirmation hearing, she noted that colleagues around the state were “overwhelmingly positive” about the nomination.

“She is clearly both admired and respected by educators,” she said.

Makin promised lawmakers that she and her department would be a resource to them as they consider bills to change education policy that affects every school department in the state.

“It will be my goal to foster transparent and trustful relationships with each of you,” she said.

Makin is running a department that implemented significant changes to the state’s educational system between 2011 and 2013 when Steven Bowen, a former teacher and state legislator, served as commissioner. The department rolled out an A-F grading system to rank school performance, got legislative approval for charter schools and required all high schools in Maine to eventually adopt a new proficiency-based diploma system.

After Bowen left to take a job in national education policy, there was a series of leadership changes, with some commissioners serving only in an acting capacity. At one point, LePage said he would put himself in charge of the department because he feared his nominee would be rejected by Democrats in the Legislature.

Her take on what came before her

When it comes to continuing policies put in place by the previous administration, Makin said Maine is no longer using the A-F grading system to measure school performance. Instead, she is interested in a deeper understanding on how schools are performing.

“What I’d like to see is a far more robust picture of what schools are achieving,” she said.

As an example, attendance data was recently added to the list of standards, but in Maine, every school has a different way of tracking when students are in school.

“We don’t want to be shining a light over and over again on schools that might be struggling for resources,” she said. “These schools are doing so many wonderful things. In a small state like Maine, a school identified as failing is a disservice for our state and communities.”

With regard to charter schools, Makin said more evaluation of the existing schools is needed before deciding whether or how to move forward.

And last year, the Legislature rolled back the requirement that all Maine high schools switch to a proficiency-based diploma system, making it optional instead. Makin said the emphasis on making sure students meet state standards – and giving high schoolers a clear picture of what it means to meet them – has been a positive part of the proficiency-based system.

“Whether students are having achievement catalogued standard by standard, on a 0-4 scale or 100 point scale or credit,  they are all graduating with proficiency in all areas,” she said.

I think it’s important to know I do try to maintain an open door, open mind and open heart.”

— Pender Makin, Maine Department of Education commissioner

Fecteau, the teacher from central Maine, is sponsoring LD 985, “An Act to Maintain High School Diploma Standards by Repealing Proficiency-based Diploma Standards,” which proposes to eliminate the language in state law that continues to allow districts to issue proficiency-based diplomas. From his perspective, it’s a system that was poorly implemented and has resulted in turning teachers into data gatherers, rather than hands-on leaders.

“I feel that proficiency-based education, as it’s been enacted, did a lot to get rid of the special part of education,” he said. “We’re trying to quantify the unquantifiable.”

Fecteau expanded on the point by saying that teachers need “time and freedom” to create engaging  lessons for students and that teachers should be focused on “a myriad of outcomes and growth within a classroom that couldn’t possibly be captured by any table, graph” or algorithm.

New priorities

Over four years, Makin hopes to extend early childhood education to more schools in Maine. Makin said schools that are already prepared to retrofit space in their buildings will be first in line for funding. Also, she said the department is working with Head Start and private programs to make sure the state’s expansion of early childhood education will not duplicate services already in place.

Makin said brains develop quickly from birth to age 3, making it essential that young children get a chance to be successful early in life.

“It’s most important for students in situations of most need,” she said.

When it comes to teacher pay, Makin said ensuring that all teachers make at least $40,000 a year is part of an effort to “mitigate a teacher shortage.” In her budget address, Mills described it as a way to ensure a living wage for teachers.

“This budget invests in recruitment and retention to ensure that teachers in Maine will not be forced to leave the state for a living wage,” Mills said in her address. “It is time to treat our teachers with the respect and dignity they deserve.”

Another part of the new educational priorities is a proposal to boost funding for K-12 education at the local level with an additional $126 million over the two-year period of the new state budget. Mills said it gets the state closer to the goal of providing 55 percent of education funding.

Makin said she wants parents to know that she’s willing to listen and wants to lead a department that’s responsive to students, teachers and parents.

“I think it’s important to know I do try to maintain an open door, open mind and open heart,” she said. “All of us together as a state will provide the very best opportunities.”

Q&A with Commissioner Makin

Gov. Mills has said combating the opioid crisis is a priority. What will you do in schools to help students whose parents may be struggling with addiction?

Makin: The Maine Department of Education is launching an Office of Innovation and the Future so that we can have skilled and innovative leaders who will work alongside Gordon Smith at the governor’s office to holistically approach this terrible epidemic.  Among measures we are considering:

Providing enhanced technical assistance and support for mental health, social and emotional learning, and behavioral health in schools

Examining a safe and effective means by which Narcan (a drug used to treat overdoses) can be made available in a manner that is similar to other emergency rescue medications

Providing information, technical support, and professional development for educators and school officials to enhance their understanding, and their skills and providing a continuum of support from prevention through response, and to provide trauma-informed practices in schools.

Last year, the Legislature made it optional, rather than mandatory, for Maine high schools to grant proficiency-based diplomas after backlash from parents. As commissioner, what’s your position on the use of proficiency-based learning and proficiency-based diplomas?

Makin: We are discussing two different issues when we talk about proficiency-based teaching and learning and when we talk about proficiency-based reporting systems. Over the past several years, every Maine district has engaged in the process of aligning their lessons, units, and courses with prioritized standards from the Maine Learning Results. Whether schools choose to report out, standard by standard, in the form of a descriptive transcript or whether they report student proficiency by way of credits that are earned based on student achievement within high school courses, all of our schools are graduating students who have demonstrated proficiency in the Maine Learning Results standards.

Maine has nine charter schools and one more license to grant through 2021. What do you think of the existing charter schools? Should there be more offerings in Maine?

Makin: I believe we need some time to fully examine the impact and success of the charter schools we currently have before making this decision.

Do classroom teachers have enough flexibility to employ innovative teaching methods? As commissioner, will you advocate for them to have more freedom to be innovative?

Makin: As a department, we are committed to reinvigorating the professionalism, creativity, expertise, and judgment of our local schools and districts.  We intend to provide information, resources, and support … but are working hard to hold back any mandates. We are modeling deep trust and respect for the professionals (educators, school leaders, district leaders) who have been trained and hired to make these decisions, and we aim to support their work rather than drive it.

How will you address the disparity in achievement and resources for rural vs. urban schools in Maine?

Makin: Maine currently has the most equitable school funding formulas in the nation. It is far from perfect, and we are committed to continual improvement to ensure the provision of necessary resources.

What’s the best way to provide a great educational experience for LGBTQ+ students?

Makin: The best way to provide a great educational experience for all students is to ensure a climate of open acceptance, connectedness, safety, and respect. Deliberate attention must be paid to protecting civil rights and to ensuring the necessary social, emotional and behavioral support.

What’s your position on standardizing teacher evaluations across the state?

Makin: All of our school districts have recently developed comprehensive teacher evaluation systems based on best practices. These systems were developed with input from stakeholders and reflect the expertise and professional judgment of each community.

In her budget address, Gov. Mills said Maine high schools rank fifth in the country, yet Maine falls behind in the number of people with postsecondary degrees. What will be your role in helping more Mainers get the advanced degrees they need to get better paying jobs?

Makin: We are working with Adult Ed, community colleges, and the university system to make sure that there are multiple and ongoing entry points into postsecondary opportunities.

I think we missed the mark sometimes in our zealous insistence that all students must immediately enter a four-year college upon graduation from high school. While this is an excellent path for many, we need to be careful not to stigmatize or downplay the fact that many young people benefit from a variety of life experiences and diverse educational pathways.

We need to make information and entry points widely available along the entire continuum of adult life here in Maine. We are interested in developing rapid response educational teams through our Adult Ed programs that could support communities when there is a large loss of employment or a changing job market to provide educational services and to funnel adult learners into community colleges or (four-year) degree programs.

There are many ways we can support student aspirations during their time in our pre-K through 12 system as well, including our many partnerships with community colleges and universities allowing students to earn credits while they are still in high school.


Disclaimer: Reporter Susan Cover does occasional freelance work for the Maine Municipal Association.


Susan Cover

Susan Cover has been a journalist for 24 years, working at newspapers in Kansas, Rhode Island, Ohio and Maine. In 2002, Susan moved to Maine to cover state government and spent 10 years in the Statehouse Bureau working for the Kennebec Journal. She covered state budgets, hundreds of bills, and referenda campaigns including bear baiting and marriage equality. In 2013, Susan was promoted to city editor at the Kennebec Journal, leading a team of reporters and photographers to put out each day’s paper. Susan is a graduate of Muskingum University in Ohio and has a master’s degree in newspaper journalism from Syracuse University. Most recently, Susan left daily newspaper journalism to pursue freelance writing and her other passion – taking run-down houses in Kennebec County and bringing them back to life. She lives in Augusta with her partner and their pets – Piper the cat and Wooley the dog.
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