Race to Embarrassment

Posted Aug. 27, 2010, at 7:19 p.m.

The fact that Maine’s application for federal funds to improve its schools was rated among the worst in the country is, in the words of state Sen. Carol Weston, “embarrassing.” The message from those who evaluated Maine’s Race to the Top application is clear: The state has many good ideas, but it lacks the details and support to turn them into reality.

As education officials and lawmakers consider, as they do every year, ways to improve Maine’s schools, they must keep these criticisms in mind. Without a clear plan for raising graduation rates and encouraging innovative teaching, for example, any work to achieve these goals is doomed. Ditto if they are not supported by local school boards, education unions and parents.

Maine has known for weeks that it would not receive federal funds under the Race to the Top program, a $3.4-billion competitive grant program aimed at prompting school reform, with an emphasis on increasing student performance and teacher accountability. Worse than not qualifying for the funds — only nine states and Washington, D.C., did in this round — was the fact that Maine’s application ranked 33 out of the 36 submitted, scoring only 283.4 points out of a possible 500.

“To be with Mississippi and Alabama — at the bottom — is embarrassing,” said Sen. Weston, a Republican from Montville who serves on the Education Committee. “Especially coming from a state that has touted its leadership in education.”

Touting leadership, it turns out, doesn’t mean much when the path is hard to follow and few are sure they even want to follow it.

Maine got fairly high marks for its commitment to and development of standards and assessments and for improving the lowest-achieving schools.

The lowest marks centered on efforts to improve teacher and principal performance (51.8 of a possible 138 points) and allowing schools to innovate (seven out of 40 points). Maine also was penalized because most school districts and the state’s teachers union did not support its reform plan.

“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,” one evaluator wrote.

“[This] doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s anything wrong with Maine schools. We’re just not jumping through the hoops they want us to jump through,” said MEA President Chris Galgay.

It is hard to see that making student achievement part of teacher evaluations is the wrong hoop. Likewise with developing better professional development programs for teachers.

Steve Bowen, director of the Center for Education Excellence at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, rightly lays the blame for Maine’s failure on the state for submitting a weak, vague application; the 133 school districts that failed to support the plan; and the MEA and Maine Principal’s Association for protecting the status quo.

“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 … than schools of a half-century ago,” he wrote on his blog.

“What a sad day for Maine.”

Indeed.

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