Inside Maine’s Race to the Top application, Part 13

Inside Maine’s Race to the Top application, Part 13

July 15, 2010 Posted by Steve Bowen - 2 Comments

As we near the end of the state’s Race to the Top application – only 10 pages remain that we have yet to review – my sense is that we need a strong finish.  The application has been uneven – solid in some parts, but embarrassingly weak in others. With the last couple of sections of the application providing the state with a chance to talk more broadly about its reform vision, the opportunity is there for the state to take the various reform elements it has presented and stitch them together into a comprehensive and compelling vision for the future.

But will it?

You tell me.  The third part of section F of the application asks the state to describe the “extent to which the state…has created, through law, regulation or policy, other conditions favorable to education reform or innovation that have increased student achievement or graduation rates, narrowed achievement gaps, or resulted in other important outcomes.” Here is the first paragraph of the state’s response, exactly as it appears in the application:

Maine has undertaken several initiatives designed to raise the level of achievement of all its students through the overarching Learning Results System. All educational initiatives the state undertakes must be related to the Learning Results. Two years ago a major initiative for secondary education began. Promising Futures is a relook at our high schools and a redesign that supports a secondary system that moves all students to higher standards through restructuring. The Department received a waiver from the USED to use all of its Obie-Porter funds to support whole school reform at the high school. In addition, the AP incentive program provides students in Maine’s high schools with a high quality option to prepare for postsecondary education. It is critical that AP classes be accessible and open to any student who wishes to meet the challenge and work hard. Maine has had success in increasing the number of students taking AP classes through the AP4ALL initiative which supports equitable access to high level courses. Many of the AP programs in Maine are supported with Gifted and Talented funds, but these classes are limited to students who have been identified as gifted and talented. This was of great concern to the Department where we are committed to making all classes available to all students. Thus the AP4ALL initiative significantly improved access to AP courses in Maine.

So, where to begin? This is one of the more bizarre paragraphs, if you can call it that, in the entire application. It mentions the importance of meeting the needs of all students, but then mentions two high school-only initiatives. First is a “relook” and “redesign” of high schools that will move students to “higher standards” through “restructuring.” No further details on this initiative are offered. The state goes on to discuss the AP4ALL program (though it provides no data or details on that program either), and complains that it can’t divert funds specifically targeted for gifted and talented students – those whose academic needs are not being met by traditional classroom instruction – and use those funds for more AP courses.

No data of any kind is provided to demonstrate that these two initiatives, whatever they are, have “increased student achievement or graduation rates, narrowed achievement gaps, or resulted in other important outcomes.”

The state goes on to say that it has set the goal of “a 90% graduation rate by 2016,” and promises that “enforcement of this policy will lead to improved outcomes for the most at-risk and lowest performing students because schools and districts will be motivated to work with these students to prevent them dropping out.” So the problem, I guess, is that the schools and districts are not properly “motivated” to deal with dropouts today. No research or evidence is provided, by the way, to suggest that the state’s new approach will work.

Next, the state announces that in order to meet its goals for expanding STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), it plans to expand “the effective 1:1 laptop initiative” to “all Maine students and teachers in grades 3-12” in “high need” districts. We’re now going to give laptops to 3rd graders? There’s precious little proof they’ve had much effect on student outcomes where they are deployed today.

The state also briefly discusses the work it is doing to expand early childhood education, especially in Waterville, which, according to the state, is a “high need district with high poverty rates and high rates of special education identification.” Waterville?

The last initiative which the state feels has “increased student achievement or graduation rates, narrowed achievement gaps, or resulted in other important outcomes,” is the recent school district consolidation effort. This effort is, they claim, achieving the goals of “equal opportunity, rigorous programming, sustainability, and more efficient use of funds.”

“The evidence is clear and mounting,” the state claims, “that the reorganization law is meeting each of the objectives set out in the reorganization law.”

Really? What exactly has reorganization accomplished after three years of work and millions of dollars spent? According to the state, 45 districts are unchanged because they were so efficient and high achieving big that they didn’t need to reorganize. Another 19 were so efficient and high achieving remote that they didn’t have to reorganize either. Another 82 districts are “nonconforming” and, in their obstinacy, are no different than they were three years ago. That adds up to 146 districts out of 290 that have made no changes whatsoever as a result of reorganization.  The state claims that 144 other former districts have reorganized into 33 new districts, which, as far as they are concerned, gives them a grand total of 179 districts statewide. The problem is, though, that 12 of those “reorganized” districts are Alternative Organizational Structures (AOS’s), which are basically glorified school unions, little changed in how they operate at all.  Fully 70 school units make up these 12 AOS’s, which puts the true total number of school units at 146 unchanged, plus 70 in AOS’s, plus 21 new RSU’s, for a total of 237. This is only 53 fewer districts than we had before, a cut of only 18 percent.

As a result of this, though, the state claims that it is “better prepared to meet the current economic and educational transformation challenges facing our state.”  As usual, not a single piece of actual hard data is cited to support this, or any other assertion in this entire part of the application.

You know, I went into this weeks ago hoping I would like this application. I understood the challenges the state faced with little record of reform to run on and a recalcitrant education establishment, but I hoped that they might throw something bold and well-crafted out there anyway. I was even encouraged, to a degree, by the vision they laid out at the start and by one or two other sections of the application that were pretty strong.

Far too much of it, though, has been like this last section – lots of platitudes, little or no actual data, and worst of all, disorganized and very poorly written.  The ideas seem to be there – they peek through now and again, but the writing is, in places,  downright embarrassing. Why make a tough situation for the state worse by putting the authorship of this thing in the hands of a group of people who can’t craft coherent paragraph?

Well, only one section remains at this point and, unfortunately, it looks at first glance like more of the same. We’ll take a careful look in the next segment, which will be the last before one final wrap up and review, along with my scorecard for Maine’s Race to the Top application.