Inside Maine’s Race to the Top application, Part 1


Whether Maine wins a federal grant or not, the state’s Race to the Top application will likely drive the education reform discussion in Maine for some time.  But what does the 211 -page document actually say?

Over the next few days, I’ll be going through the state’s application and breaking it down section by section. What is Maine’s vision for education reform? What will the schools of Maine’s future look like if the Race to the Top application guides our way? It that vision of the future something we should pursue or not? Given the other states with which we must compete, what are our chances of winning a Race to the Top grant?

We’ll begin at the beginning, with the application’s description of the state’s reform plan.

Maine’s Race to the Top application, Part A(1)(i) and A(1)(ii): The state’s reform agenda and stakeholder support.

The authors of Maine’s Race to the Top (RTT) application decided against drafting some kind of executive summary, so the state’s RTT application begins by articulating, as required by the application instructions, a “comprehensive, coherent reform agenda” along with a description of the nature and extent of school district support for it.

What does this “comprehensive” and “coherent” reform plan look like?  The proposal laid out in the first few pages of the application contains plenty of standard-issue boilerplate about the importance of Maine people being “among” the best educated in the world and about Maine students needing a “world-class” education in order to succeed in the “global economy.”  My guess is that you’d find almost identical language in every state’s RTT application.

The application narrative then describes the central concept of the Department’s proposed reforms, which is a focus on the individual learner. As described in the application, this “focus on the individual student” has “five interrelated elements:”

  • Personalized learning,” by which the Department means educational goals and plans customized for each student. Under such an approach, students would be more or less liberated from the grade-level system we have now, and would proceed though a personalized education plan, moving to the next level only when certain outcome-based learning goals – tied to rigorous standards – have been met.
  • Performance-based learning,” which the Department contrasts to Maine’s current “instructional system,” which they claim, rightly, is “dependent on local curriculum development and local interpretation of the State’s standards, with uneven implementation and expectations across the State.”  Under a “performance-based” approach, standardized assessments of various kinds determine whether students have achieved mastery, which in turn determines the curricular pathway they then follow.
  • Systems of Learning Support” provide a “safety net” for students to help them stay on track to achieve proscribed learning outcomes, and, under the Department’s vision, would not simply be school-based, but would “weave together the resources of the state, school, home and community.  Among the “interventions” described in the application is a heavy emphasis on early childhood learning.
  • Making use of the RTT application’s own terminology, the Department includes “Great Teachers and Leaders” as the forth element of this new vision, and it is here that the Department first describes what I would characterize as the plan’s “boldest” element so far, which is a new performance-based accountability system for teachers and “school leaders,” to be called the “Maine Professional Accountability System.”  More on this later.
  • Using data” is the last component of the plan. The Department correctly claims that the interwoven approach they envision “is dependent upon a robust and comprehensive data system” that creates a feedback loop for the entire system.  Given the Obama administration’s focus on data systems, the state’s inclusion of this element makes the application that much stronger.

So how does the plan rate? In a recent meeting of the Legislature’s Education Committee, Rep. Ed Finch asked the RTT application’s authors whether the plan laid they laid out was “bold reform” or “watered down solutions.”

At first glance, I’d say it falls somewhere in the middle. If it is done right, a student-centered approach, in which the education system responds to the demands of students instead of the other way around, really does have the potential to transform our schools, especially given the data management and technological tools available to schools today.  The plan is probably not as ambitious as those that some other states will put forward, but given the twin challenges of the state’s local control dynamic and the customary intransigence of the education establishment, it is hard to see how anything more daring is even remotely possible.

The whole thing, though, relies on broad-based support. Districts, with state assistance and boatloads of federal money, will have to deploy and manage complex data systems, adopt commonly developed curricula and assessments, and become accustomed to level of accountability that is utterly absent in schools today.

It is therefore disappointing that the state struggled to get the kind of stakeholder support a modest but promising reform plan like this should have won. The state’s reform proposal is relatively ambitious by Maine’s low standards for school reform, but it is hardly some great threat to a schooling status quo that is failing outright one out of every four students it serves.  Despite this, only 82 of the state’s 216 school units signed on to the plan, only 38 percent. The application’s authors optimistically point out that 70 percent of the state’s student population is served by these 82 districts, but the fact that 134 school districts felt that even a reform plan as moderate as this one was more than they could bear is an utter disgrace. Unbelievably, only 24 local teacher’s union leaders signed on to the application – less than 12 percent of the statewide total. Unfortunately, the districts these progressively-minded union leaders represent serve only 23 percent of Maine’s students.

The signal to Washington, then, could not be clearer. Though Maine has put forward at least the outline of plan that, while moderate, does have potential, Maine’s obstinate education establishment, which has failed students across Maine for generations, will have none of it.

Which part of the plan, I wonder, is so odious to them?  Is the focus on student, rather than institutional needs? Is it that the system is to be driven by data, rather than politics and personalities? Could it be that for once, Maine’s educational system will be made to endure some small dose of accountability?

Part A(1) of the application is just the beginning of the proposal, of course, and in the sections to come we’ll learn more details about the plan and perhaps discover why Maine’s education establishment failed to buy in to what, at this point, at least, looks to be a promising reform proposal.