Racing to Catch Up

Read the full report | Having fallen behind more reform-minded states, Maine will struggle mightily to demonstrate to the Obama administration that it is worthy of federal Race to the Top funds.

Included in the $787 billion federal economic stimulus bill passed by the Congress last spring was the Race to the Top Fund, a $4.35 billion federal education initiative designed, according to the U.S. Department of Education, to “reform our schools and challenge an educational status quo that is failing too many children.” The amount of Race to the Top Fund dollars each state is to receive will be determined by a competitive grant. On November 12, 2009, the Department released the 103-page Race to the Top Fund grant application, which describes in detail what the Obama administration is looking for as evidence that a state is a worthy place to invest federal education reform dollars.

A careful review of the grant application requirements suggests that with the education policies the state has on the books today, Maine is at a significant competitive disadvantage with regard to winning Race to the Top funding. Simply put, without major changes in state policy, Maine has almost no chance of winning millions of dollars in federal funding for our schools.

Among the findings of this report:

• To meet the first set of selection criteria, Maine will have to demonstrate broad support for a meaningful education reform agenda, as evidenced by statements of assurance from local school superintendents, school board members and teacher union leaders. Maine has had little success with state-level education reform efforts in the past, and winning widespread support for any reform that threatens the state’s education establishment will be a significant challenge.

• Relative to many other states, Maine has seen lackluster improvements in student outcomes over the past few years. The state will struggle to demonstrate, as the application requires, that it been successful at increasing student achievement and closing persistent achievement gaps between subgroups such as high- and low-income students.

• While Maine does have a program of state learning standards, it trails the nation in the development of an effective statewide assessment system, something required by the Race to the Top Fund program. It will have to quickly develop such a system if it hopes to be competitive on the application’s standards and assessment criteria.

• Maine will need to rapidly accelerate the development of its state-level longitudinal data system, particularly with regard to data on teacher effectiveness, if it stands any chance of scoring well on the data systems portion of the application.

• Maine will likely score very poorly on the section of the application dedicated to teacher and administrator effectiveness unless it undertakes reforms that provide alternative routes for teacher preparation and certification, begins to allow student achievement data to be used in teacher evaluations and compensation, and dramatically improves the processes by which ineffective teachers can be more easily removed from the classroom.

• Maine has little or no experience with taking aggressive steps at the state level to deal with persistently failing schools, something heavily weighted in the Race to the Top Fund application. Legislation will need to be enacted allowing the state to intervene in chronically failing schools, something it does not do today.

• Maine’s continuing failure to embrace public charter schools or schools like them puts it at significant competitive disadvantage. Thirty-nine other states have enacted public charter school legislation. Some type of legislative action will be necessary if the state is to score any more than a handful of points on this section of the Race to the Top Fund application.

• While Maine has launched a series of efforts aimed at improving education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, other states have done far more. If Maine is to score well in this area, more effort will be needed.

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