Maine’s Race to the Top “Report Card” is out and it is not pretty.

Maine’s Race to the Top “Report Card” is out and it is not pretty.

August 25, 2010 Posted by Steve Bowen - 1 Comment

The U.S. Department of Education has released the scoring data for the second round of the Race to the Top competition and why Maine ended up ranking near the very bottom of states that applied in this last round is becoming much clearer.

According to the detailed score sheet the feds released, Maine did well on “Standards and Assessment” and also did well on “Turning Around the Lowest-Achieving Schools”, scoring the equivalent of a “B” in both areas. It didn’t do quite as well on “Data Systems”, scoring an average of 33 points out of an available 40 (a grade of “C”), and got poor marks for its overall reform plan and the state’s capacity to implement it, earning a “F” in the “State Success Factors” section. The state got crushed, though, as I predicted it would, on the “Great Teachers and Leaders” section, scoring a humiliating average of only 51.8 points out of an available 138 – good for a 37.5 percent score. OUCH!

Looking through the scorer comments, some patterns quickly emerge:

  • Repeatedly, scorers mention that the application lacks needed details, specifically for how various reforms will be implemented.  Over and over again, scorers wanted to know HOW the state planned to make these things happen. In one section, a scorer writes that details for how the new data systems were to be implemented were “so general” as to be “effectively meaningless.” “Maine only talks in generalities,” another reviewer says, with a third writing that “the  proposal provides such activity descriptors as ‘designing,’ ‘adopting,’ ‘conducting,’ ‘performing,’ but does not provide any specific articulations of how the state will go about implementing these activities.” That theme reoccurs again and again, suggesting that the state should have more fully detailed the reform ideas it put forward. Who was it who said that the application was “too vague where it needed to be detailed”? Oh yeah, it was me.
  • Another theme that crops up is the lack of boldness in the plan, with one reviewer chastising the state for “low targets for implementation.”  Another reviewer went after the state for proposing that only 2% of the school districts in Maine make use of student achievement data in deciding whether to remove an ineffective teacher or administrator. “That is not an ambitious goal,” the scorer observed. Several scorers complained that aspects of the plan were optional for school districts, which meant that any real impact on student outcomes might be negligible. Who was it who said that the application was “too cautious where it needed to be bold”? Oh yeah, it was me.
  • If there was one factor that really hurt us, though, it appears to have been the lack of support from the school districts, the Maine Principal’s Association and, most especially, the teachers’ unions. Some quotes from the scorers:
  • “The lack of teacher support is a critical weakness”
  • “Key support from the state’s principal and teacher associations and parent constituencies is not included and considered a significant weakness.”
  • “The relatively low participation of districts statewide in combination with the low support of teacher associations and low targets for implementation indicate a low level of statewide impact on student achievement.”
  • “The lack of strong teacher support is cause for concern.”
  • “The lack of teacher union support raises questions about the capacity of commitment to make the plan successful across the state.”
  • “The most glaring concern [is] the lack of teacher support for the reform plan and this impact on capacity to implement.”
  • “The lack of broad LEA support weakens the proposal. In particular, only 30% of union leaders signed the MOU agreement, making it difficult to achieve broad statewide impact.”
  • “The Maine Education Association voted to not support the RTTT application. The Maine Principals Association did not provide a letter of support either. This is a definite detriment to implementing and sustaining the process.”
  • “Some 60 percent of teacher leaders did not sign off on the MOU — this leaves the possibility of lessened support by teachers statewide.”

Clearly, the lack of broad support for the plan is what hurt us in the “State Success Factors” section, but it also seems to have  cast a shadow of doubt over the rest of the proposal.

So at the end of the day, where do we point fingers? I would say we point them in three directions:

1. The Department, for putting together a plan that lacked boldness and, though heavy on platitudes, was far too light on details with regard to implementation. More and better is what we needed.

2. The 133 local school districts who failed to support the plan.  What, the status quo is really working so well for you districts that you couldn’t buy into a plan so benign that every reviewer criticized it for its lack of ambition?  That absence of support, detailed in the very first section of the plan, hurt the state’s chances from the get-go.

3. The education special interests in Augusta, namely the Maine Principal’s Association and the Maine Education Association.  Look around you, gentle reader, the system of schooling you see is their creation, and they would rather turn down $70 million in funding from Washington than change it in any way that threatens their stranglehold on power. Oh, they’ll take the money without the strings attached. You won’t see any of them turning their noses up at the $39 million in “edujobs” money coming from Washington. But ask them to reform, ask them to be more transparent and more accountable, and ask them to give up even one iota of their monopoly power (through the creation of charter schools, for instance), and you get nothing but howls of protest about “federal blackmail.”

Well, they won. We get no reform money from Washington and with budget shortfalls looming, there is little chance that funding will be available to launch any of the reform approaches outlined in the plan. So, like the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the state’s Race to the Top application will likely be carted off to sit in some repository for government documents deep in the bowels of the state library and will never be heard from again. The establishment status quo will continue its stalwart defense of mediocrity and kids will return to schools both in the coming days and in the years ahead that are little different in the fundamental way that they do their jobs than schools of a half-century ago.

What a sad day for Maine.