Inside Maine’s Race to the Top application, Part 14


The last section of the Race the Top application describes “Competition Priorities,” which appear to be issues that the U.S. Department of Education wants to see addressed in the applications but which apparently don’t warrant entire sections to themselves.  Applicants are therefore to briefly address the following, in the narrative of the application if possible and in this section if needed:

  • Their “comprehensive approach to reform.”
  • Their “emphasis” on education in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).
  • Any “innovations in improving early learning opportunities” that they have implemented.
  • Any “expansion and adaptation of statewide longitudinal data systems.”
  • Their “alignment” of education policy across “vertically” and “horizonatally.”
  • Any efforts being made to “provide schools with flexibility and autonomy” in such areas as “selecting staff,” implementing “new structures and formats for the school day or year that result in increased learning time,” and so forth.

How did we do?

  • The first “competition priority,” a “comprehensive approach to education reform,” should “not be address separately” here, says the Obama administration, but should “cut across the entire application.” The state therefore has nothing new to add here with regard to this issue, trusting that the rest of the application reveals the extent to which a “comprehensive approach” is in place.
  • On the STEM priority, we get a short retelling of the state’s various efforts in STEM education, though, like so many other sections of the application, it contains very little – nothing, actually – about any measurable outcomes from these efforts. That they left this out comes as no surprise given Maine’s scores on the NAEP test for science, which have plunged in recent years. In 1996, 41 percent of Maine’s 8th graders were deemed “at or above proficient” in science, but by 2005, only 34 percent were. We have plans, we have collaboratives, we have partnerships, we have the “unique one-to-one student and teacher laptop initiative,” and so forth, we just don’t have any results. The state does set some goals involving “decreasing the combined overall percentage of students” failing to meet science standards and increasing “overall student aspirations to pursue STEM related careers, but overall, the STEM section isn’t particularly strong.
  • The section on early learning is much the same. The Department discusses the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet, the Maine Children’s Growth Council, the “working plan” for “Human Early Childhood Systems”, the “Maine Early Childhood Learning Guidelines,” and “Maine Educare,” and all of this gives one the sense that a least a lot of meeting and talking is being done about early childhood education. It is harder to tell, though, how much actual early childhood educating is happening. The state reports that “162 approved public 4-year-old classrooms” are in place across Maine, which represents “29% of universal capacity,” but the state says almost nothing about the existence in Maine of countless high-quality private preschools. This seems to suggest that as far as the state is concerned, “universal capacity” can only be met by public school facilities, even though the state admits that “start up costs remain a barrier” to the expansion of pre-K programming in public schools. The state’s approach to “improving early learning outcomes,” therefore, seems to be one of having lots of people and plans in place to expand public pre-K programs, and not having the money to do so but hoping that someday they will.  Why this is the approach Maine should take is not discussed.
  • The data systems section is a bit of a rehash of an earlier part of the application devoted to data systems, though this version benefits from some stronger writing, and one get some sense, finally, of how the data collected by this enormously complex data system will actually be used to improve outcomes from pre-K to teacher education programs at the college level.  I have some doubts about how well all of that will actually work once it is in place – government is notoriously bad at using data to drive decisions – but at least there is a clear vision here.
  • For the “P-20” priority, the state is to describe how the pre-K to graduate school system will become more “vertically” seamless, so that students easily transition from one step in their education careers to the next, and also how the system will be coordinated “horizontally” so that schools are working cooperatively with “state agencies, community partners” and so forth to give student access to “a broad array of opportunities and services they need.” This is an important section, because, as the Obama administration has made clear, its vision for public education in the United States involves a comprehensive “cradle to career” approach where local and community control over schools is replaced by a monolithic big-government system run from Washington. The Maine Department of Education provides a laughably weak four-sentence response to this important “competitive priority,” mumbling something about the “PK-Adult Council” and how it will “ensure a coordinated and seamless education system that contributes to Maine’s future economy and quality of life.” How the Council is to do this is not discussed.
  • For the last part of this section, which also happens to be the long-awaited last section of the Race to the Top application narrative, the state is invited to discuss how it will “create conditions for reform and innovation as well as the conditions for learning by providing schools with flexibility and autonomy” in such areas as hiring, budget authority, accountability, reaching high-need students, and engaging “families and communities.”  States are given the option of “discussing” this priority here but are not required to, and Maine chose not to.  Maine’s RTT application ends, therefore, not with a bang, but with a whimper – no response whatsoever to the application’s final element.

So where are we? These “invitational” sections were just that- an opportunity for the states to strengthen their cases a little by focusing on a small handful of policy pieces.  Maine’s response to this section was like its 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.

Next, and last, a look back and some guesses as to how Maine may make out with regard to a Race to the Top grant.