Maine’s Race to the Top Application – the Final Analysis

Maine’s Race to the Top Application – the Final Analysis

July 20, 2010 Posted by Steve Bowen - 2 Comments

So after 12,000 words of analysis spread over 14 blog entries, what is my bottom line on Maine’s Race to the Top application?

We’ll evidently find out Monday whether we are a finalist or not, and though I am hesitant to make a prediction, my guess is that Maine won’t even make it to that final round, much less win a grant.

Let’s briefly go through the thing one section at a time so I can explain why.

  • The first section, which details the state’s reform agenda, cancels itself out, losing in the second half whatever points it gained in the first half. As I wrote in Part 1, the state’s reform plan is “probably not as ambitious as those that some other states will put forward,” but given where Maine is starting from, which is way back in the pack, it’s a pretty good plan. The problem is, though, that the Department got minimal support for it from the education establishment – only 82 of the state’s 216 school districts signed on, and even fewer teachers’ union leaders. The state also has a decidedly poor record of actually implementing statewide reform, which means that even if we got the money the state would struggle to put the plan into action. The fact that we’ve seen little improvement in student outcomes over the past ten years or so will also signal to Washington that their money might be better spent elsewhere.
  • The second section, on standards and assessment, is, like so much else in the application, a bit of a mixed bag. The state consumes much of its narrative with lists of the various standards and assessment consortia that Maine is a part of, but also includes a thoughtful and detailed plan for the implementation of Common Core standards. The section has some poorly written parts in it as well, but the good probably outweighs the bad here.
  • The third section, on data systems, talks a good game, but is, as I wrote in Part 6, “maddening in its lack of specificity.”  If we had a strong record of implementing reform on this scale, that would be one thing, but since we don’t, we really need to have a very thorough and detailed plan here to show that we’ve given the integration of new data systems some serious thought. Such a plan is not a part of the application, though.
  • I wrote in Part 7 that the state’s application “would be won or lost” in the “Great Teachers and Leaders” section and I stand by that – this section will cost us. We don’t have alternative routes to teacher and principal certification and did not include any concrete plans to develop some, so that is 21 points lost right there. The state redeems itself somewhat by developing a performance-based accountability system for teacher and principals, but with so little union buy-in, does such an approach stand any chance of actually seeing the light of day? The Obama Administration places a great deal of emphasis on the “distribution” of effective teachers and principals, but the state does a poor job explaining its plans with regard to that issue. That’s another 25 points we likely lost. The last part of this section, on improving teacher and administrator preparation programs, was uneven at best. Altogether, the Great Teachers and Leaders section of the application is worth 138 points – more than any other – but it is hard to see how we picked up very many points there.
  • Section E of the application deals with Turning Around the Lowest Achieving Schools and this part is better than most, though the state fails to include any convincing data or research on the turnaround approach it prefers, which could put doubts in the minds of the application’s scorers. If they believe, in the absence of this evidence, that the state’s approach will work, we’ll do okay on this section, if not, we’re in trouble.
  • Section F covers a handful of different policy pieces, including charter schools, and, yet again, we lose some ground. We don’t have charter schools, so that hurts us, and the state’s “innovative schools” alternative is obviously ludicrous. The Department’s response to a question about school reform conditions more generally is banal in some places and incoherent in others. Altogether, this section is poorly organized and poorly written and one senses, as I wrote in Part 12, that the Department just wanted to be done with the whole thing by the time they got to this part.
  • The last section, on competitive priorities, was, as I wrote in Part 14, like the state’s “Race to the Top application in miniature – lots of talk about panels and task forces and collaboratives and initiatives, very little hard data on the outcomes of these various efforts, and, pervading the whole thing,  a constant, nagging sense that instead of growing out of a coherent and thoughtful vision for the future of education in Maine, the application was thrown together in something of a hurry by people who didn’t really want to do it.”

So at the end of the day, where are we?

I think we had a chance at one time. The reform plan the state proposes is not bad. Had more time been spent weaving it throughout the entire application, so that one got the sense that the reform plan really was a driving force for the rest of the application, the application would have been much, much stronger. Instead, it is described in the application’s first few pages, and is never heard from again. The state also made the mistake of trying to placate an education establishment that was never going to buy in to this in the first place. The Department would have been better served had it aimed high and tossed in at least a couple of truly bold proposals. The MEA hated this thing from the start, so what did the state have to lose? I also think the state took the wrong approach with regard to the failings of the last few years. A mea culpa on Local Assessment, for instance, would have shown Washington that the state was reflective and capable of warts-and-all self-assessment. Instead, we get a selective interpretation of recent education reform efforts in Maine, one that does not stand up to much scrutiny. We also get lots of inanity about how important all of this is and list upon wonkish list of the various consortia and task forces of which we’re a part, but we get precious little data. Where is the research? How well have the reforms we’ve already tried worked out? What about the ones we are proposing? There is simply no way to know.

And then there is the writing, which, in places, is cringe-inducingly bad.  I understand that a project of this size and scope has to be broken up and given to various people to work on, but nobody went back through it to check grammar or sentence structure or punctuation?  As I wrote in Part 13, the state will have a hard enough time winning on the merits, why “make it worse by putting the authorship of this thing in the hands of a group of people who can’t craft coherent paragraph?”

In the final analysis, we have an application that, though it shows signs of promise in places, is simply too weak – too cautious where it needed to be bold, too vague where it needed to be detailed, and too content with jargony platitudes when it needed to present a clear, concise, and convincing case for the state’s reform agenda. I just don’t think it is good enough to win.

That said, it remains an important piece of work, and, win or lose, it will be a document that, one hopes, will inform some of the state’s education reform efforts moving forward.  Embracing and enacting much of what the state proposes, such as student-centered learning, increased accountability, and more effective training and support for teachers and administrators, would move Maine forward, make our schools better, and, as a side benefit, make us much more competitive for funding opportunities like this in the future.

Based on this application, I just don’t think we’re there yet, and I can’t imagine Washington will think we are either.