Inside Maine’s Race to the Top application, Part 3

Inside Maine’s Race to the Top application, Part 3

June 15, 2010 Posted by Steve Bowen - No Comments

In Part 3 of my series on Maine’s Race to the Top application, we look at section A(2) of the application, which has to do with the state’s capacity to actually implement the reform plan it has laid out.

In case anyone had any question, the Department puts such worries to rest by claiming in the very first sentence of this section that “Maine possesses the capacity and capability to oversee successful implementation of its Race to the Top reform plan.”

It does?

The Department goes on to explain that a recent administrative reorganization of the Department “in many ways aligned with Race to the Top assurance areas and priorities.” Additionally, the Department claims to have experience “working across state agencies,” which  it does as part of the Children’s Cabinet, for example.

Okay, but can the Department point to a single example of its successfully leading a statewide education reform initiative?

Evidently not. The rest of this section of the application discusses the number and frequency of meetings to be conducted by the various implementation teams, and describes the ways that the state will “provide implementation support” to participating districts “by providing leadership and dedicated teams to support on-the-ground administration of the state’s plan.” There is some talk of how federal funds will be used, and the state is careful to point out that it will avoid using RTT funds to add additional staff at the state level. The state claims that it will undertake “external evaluation” of reforms, but the example it points to, an extraordinarily weak evaluation of the laptop program, doesn’t give one a lot of confidence that meaningful evaluations will be undertaken. There is a section describing how the state will handle fiscal management, but there is also quite a bit of meaningless filler plugged in here and there claiming, for instance, that “the Department’s plan for implementing and overseeing the Race to the Top grant is built around sustaining the momentum and institutionalizing reform while ensuring continuous improvement in the efforts undertaken by the state and participating LEA’s.”

Ugh.

What is missing from this section of the application is any proof whatsoever that the state can actually do what it claims it can do. This is important because the simple fact is that the Department has struggled to implement statewide reforms in the past, from the laptop program to Local Assessment to district consolidation.  The ultimately failed attempt to implement Local Assessment was probably the effort most similar to what the state proposes to do under RTT, and it was an unmitigated disaster.  District consolidation was the state’s most recent attempt at systemic school reform and it has largely failed as well – most “reorganized” school districts did no reorganizing of any kind, and much of the actual district consolidation that has happened takes the form of “Alternative Organizational Structures” that are little more than glorified school unions.

Simply put, as much as I think the reform plan outlined in the state’s RTT application is worth pursuing, I have grave doubts about the state’s ability to pull it off, especially given the scant support the plan has among district and union leaders.

The wild card in all this is the state’s open governor’s race. Were the state to elect a committed school reformer, and I would put Paul LePage and Eliot Cutler in that category, the state’s chances of successfully implementing the RTT reform package would almost certainly improve, especially if either or both candidates made embracing reform a centerpiece of their campaigns. Sen. Libby Mitchell, by contrast, has been in the legislature for 24 years and, throiugh her role on the legislature’s Education Committee, is largely responsible for building and maintaining the special interest-dominated education system the state has today. We can, I’m guessing, expect little in the way of reform from Maine’s education establishment if Sen. Mitchell is elected governor.

In the end, therefore, whether the Baldacci administration’s vision for education reform as laid out in the RTT application can actually be implemented depends to a large degree on who follows him into the Blaine House. The authors of the RTT application don’t bother to mention this, but neither do they make a convincing case that implementing a plan of this kind is something the state has had much success with in the past.