Inside Maine’s Race to the Top application, Part 2

Inside Maine’s Race to the Top application, Part 2

June 11, 2010 Posted by Steve Bowen - 2 Comments

Maine’s Race to the Top application, Part A(1)(iii): The state’s achievement goals and how stakeholder support “will translate into broad statewide impact.”

Yesterday, I briefly described the school reform vision that the Maine Department of Education lays out in the first part of its Race to the Top application. The second part of that introductory section described what I would characterize as the shamefully low level of support for the plan among Maine’s school districts.

The third part of section 1 of Part A of the RTT application, which I’ll review today, provides states with the chance to explain how the stakeholder support they have won will translate into “broad statewide impact,” which in turn will allow the state to reach “ambitious yet achievable goals” for increasing student achievement.

Despite the fact that only 82 of the state’s 216 school units signed on to the RTT plan, the Department starts off this section of the application with the glass-half-full observation that the districts who are on board “represent 70 percent of all the K-12 students across the state and 59 percent of all students in poverty.” This will, they argue lead to “significant sustained impact” across the state. Assuming that the school units that have signed on to the plan actually implement it (and that, once implemented, it actually works), the Department’s claim is probably true. As an interesting side note, the recalcitrance of the districts that couldn’t bring themselves to support the reform effort means that we may be headed toward a “two Maines” scenario at the school level, with some school districts moving forward with a comprehensive reform agenda while others do nothing.

According to the application, the “significant sustained impact” that the Department predicts we’ll see is to be measured by improved student outcomes. While student achievement in Maine is “relatively high” already, (which I would suggest has much to do with Maine’s unique student demographics), the Department has set the goal of increasing student achievement across the board, as measured by standardized tests such as the NAEP test.

The state wants to increase its high school graduation rate as well, which it claims in the RTT application is currently 80 percent. (Education Week puts Maine’s graduation rate at 76.3, only slightly higher than it was ten years ago.) The application sets no specific goals for graduation rates moving forward, though the legislature did pass a ludicrous piece of legislation earlier this year setting the goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by the 2015-2016 school year.  How will we be able to  make a 15 percentage point gain in graduation rates in six years when the rate has risen only 1.2 percent over the last decade? Not to worry, the legislature’s bill creates a task force to figure that out. I never cease to be amazed at the legislature’s faith in its ability to solve problems it has never shown any ability to solve in the past.

In any event, the Department sets some pretty ambitious goals for student outcomes, including having “90 percent of our students pursue and be successful in post-secondary education by 2020.” The trick is, though, that achieving those goals comes back to having school districts actually implement the reforms in the Race to the Top plan, and not even the districts that signed on to the plan are prepared to put the entire reform package in place.

As the chart below illustrates, 82 school units signed on to the RTT application, but their support for some elements of the plan is mixed.  80 of the 82 districts intend to make use of new data systems, for instance, but only 70 of the 82 intend to use student data to inform teacher and administrator evaluations. Only 61 of the 82 agree to use those evaluations, which will be based, at least in part, on student achievement data, to inform tenure decisions. Sixty-eight of the 82 will use these evaluations to inform dismissal of staff, and only 55 of the 82 – only two-thirds – plan to use these performance-based evaluations to inform “compensation, promotion and retention”. A dismal 62 of the 82 agree to take aggressive steps to turn around under-performing schools.

Whether any of this matters depends to a large degree on whether you believe that the plan the state has laid out will be effective, and will be effective only if districts implement the entire package. Will student outcomes improve if you deploy a comprehensive data management system but refuse to use the data to make personnel decisions? I can’t imagine that they will, but it looks as though we are likely to find out, given that a number of districts, though ambitious enough to sign on to the RTT application in the first place, are hesitant about embracing the entire proposal.

So we have a plan and we have some school districts and union leaders on board and ready to go. But can we pull this off? If we do win the money, can the Maine’s school establishment, from the state Department of Education on down, actually make reform happen? That is the subject of the next post in this series.