Maine’s Race to the Top application due today


June 1 has arrived and applications for the second round of federal Race to the Top grants are due today, including Maine’s.

Not wanting to tip its hand, the state Department of Education has released few details about what the state’s RTT application will say, with the only hints being contained a 12-page “summary” of the application made public a couple of weeks ago.

What does the summary document tell us? I argued a few weeks ago that, given the state’s uneven history of adopting meaningful education reforms,  Maine stood little chance of winning an RTT grant. There is little in the state’s summary of its application that makes me think otherwise even now, on the day the application is to be submitted.

For instance:

  • On the “state success factors” portion of the application, the state intends to argue that it plans to advance a “comprehensive vision” for Maine’s educational system which it characterizes as a “personal journey for next generation learners.”  That vision, as described in the summary document, isn’t exactly awe-inspiring, despite promises of  “bold and innovative reform efforts”.  The plan seems to focus mainly on increasing graduation rates and closing achievement gaps by adopting a “student-centered” instructional model.  Hopefully, the actual application fleshes this out in some way that is a bit less yawn-inducing.
  • Under the “standards and assessment” section of the application, the Department lays out all the various multi-state  initiatives of which Maine is a part, including the “New England Comprehensive Assessment Program (NECAP)”, the “CCSSO/NGA Common Core State Standards Consortium Initiative (CCSSI)”, the “SMARTER Balanced assessment consortium”, and the “Career‐Technical Education Consortium of States”. If states get a lot of RTT points for joining various interstate consortia of one kind or another, Maine is in good shape.
  • The following acronyms appear in the section about transitioning to “enhanced standards and high-quality assessments”: CCSSI, SMARTER, MLTI, CTE, STEM, CBAL, IGCSE, AP, and IB. The following acronyms appear in the section that follows it, which pertains to “data systems to support instruction”: DW, DSS, DMT, SLDS, SIF, NSC, MeCAS, NECAP, and my personal favorite, MeVAAM. Is it hoped that if we bury the U.S. Department of Education in wonk-speak they will overlook how little actual reform progress we’ve made in recent years?
  • In my recent paper on Race to the Top, I described how the “Great Teachers and Leaders” part of the RTT application will be the most troubling for Maine, given the extent to which we trail the nation with regard to policies that encourage educator excellence. According to the application summary, Maine intends to move forward with alternative routes to certification, proposes “to design an evaluation system that is able to identify effective teachers”, will “establish a blue ribbon panel” to look in to how to get highly-effective teachers to move to the more rural parts of the state,  intends to link student outcome data to teacher preparation programs, and plans to align professional development opportunities with the aforementioned vision of a “personal journey of learning” for all Maine students. This is all well and good, but how many states are already doing most, if not all of these things already?  Additionally, Maine has never implemented any of these reforms, so why should Washington believe that we can and will successfully implement them now?
  • The “turning around the lowest-achieving schools” section of the application is particularly disappointing, if the summary document is any indication. In essence, the Department intends to argue that is has statutory authority to “intervene” in chronically under-performing schools, which is an authority it does not have in any real sense.  Additionally, the state plans to argue that its recent implementation of elements of the federal School Improvement Grant program, which led to the firing of a few school principals, means that it is serious about dealing with failing schools. That most recent effort, it should be noted, was driven by federal, not state action.
  • The summary document closes with mention of the state’s initiatives around Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education, and the state’s push to expand early childhood learning, neither of which are particularly notable.
  • Charter schools, and the state’s lack thereof, are never mentioned in the application summary.

So, there you have it. A lot of acronyms, a lot of name-dropping with regard to the various interstate consortia of which Maine is a member, and a lot of promises of reform, despite little evidence that meaningful reforms have been implemented in the past or that the state has the capacity to undertake the reforms it proposes.

This is not a small thing.  The RTT application is quite clear that much of what Washington is looking for is evidence that states can actually do the things they promise to do. Delaware and Tennessee won the first round of RTT grants in no small part because they had already implemented a number of the initiatives that Maine (and a number of other states, for that matter) are only talking about implementing.

Maine’s scant history of successful reform implementation, combined with lukewarm application buy-in from Maine school districts and teacher unions, means that despite what the the Department submits for an application today, Maine is still a considerable long shot for a Race to the Top grant.