Inside Maine’s Race to the Top application, Part 11

by Steve Bowen on July 9, 2010

in Uncategorized

Section E of the state’s Race to the Top application deals with “turning around the lowest-achieving schools,” and is divided into two sections. In the first section, the state must describe the statutory authority it has to “intervene directly” in the state’s “persistently lowest-achieving schools” and in school units that are “in improvement or corrective action status.” In the second section, it must outline “ambitious yet achievable” plans to turn these schools and districts around.

In a paper released earlier this year, I suggested that Maine could have two problems with this section.

One, state law does not give the Department of Education the power to “intervene” in Maine’s schools or school districts in any meaningful way. It can’t take them over or replace their employees or unilaterally amend collective bargaining agreements or take any other dramatic steps of this kind. It can advise schools and districts, by sending in “assistance” teams, for instance, but it can’t take any significant action to seize control of schools or districts, as can be done in states like Florida.

Second, putting an “ambitious yet achievable” turnaround plan in place would mean giving the state powers that it does not have, thereby taking those powers away from local school districts, local teacher unions, and local school boards.  Since local control is next to godliness in Maine (and typically for good reason), increasing state control in this area is something that is politically untenable.

In its application, the state deals with these issues by doing some clever wordsmithing, especially in the first part, and by piecing together an approach to turning these schools around that, while not exactly “ambitious,” is thoughtful and almost certainly “achievable.”

In response to the application’s request that the state identify the statutory authority it has to “intervene” in chronically underperforming schools, the Department lists a series of excerpts from various state statutes which provide, they claim, “multiple junctures at which the state may intervene directly” in lower-performing schools. The powers the commissioner is granted in the noted statutes, though, are to “review,” “inspect,” “validate,” and “annually report” on the status of each school, as well as to “provide assistance” to districts found to be wanting.

Nowhere is the commissioner empowered to do much more than that and nowhere is the commissioner given the power to “intervene” in a consequential way unless the safety of children is the issue.

In the second part of this section, the state is required to describe the steps it will take to turn around those schools and districts found to be “lowest performing.” The Department begins by claiming that it “has seen sustained improvement in 20 of the 34 low-performing schools that have received support” from it in the past, though it neglects to identify these schools nor provides any evidence whatsoever of the “sustained improvement” it has seen. That is an unfortunate oversight, as the “turnaround” strategy for low-performing schools that the state lays out is essentially to do what it has already been doing. Stronger evidence that this approach works would have helped the state makes its case.

What is the state’s approach to getting low-performing schools back on their feet?

Unfortunately, the state’s description of the process could use some clearer writing, but from what I can gather, there is to be  a state-level “turnaround team” comprised of Department staff and a “cadre of school improvement consultants” who will be dispatched to the various underperforming  schools, where they will “provide guidance and support” to the district-based “school improvement teams.” Additionally, the identified schools will be “required to participate” in an “Improvement Network,” along with the other low-achieving schools, which is an approach that has been embraced elsewhere. (In fact, Tennessee, in its winning RTT application, proposed removing failing schools from their home districts altogether and putting them into an “Achievement School District” under state control.)

The Department goes on to describe in some detail the various  support mechanisms that will be offered through both the Turnaround Teams and the Improvement Network, and on paper, at least, the approach sounds both promising and doable, especially because it strikes a pretty good balance between local control and a supportive, though relatively minor role for the state.

The Department was also clever enough to integrate pieces from elsewhere in the RTT application, including, for instance, a few lines on how the leadership institutes described in section D of the application will be used to provide support to school and district leaders.

I wish, as I have wished elsewhere, that this section was more skillfully written. The pieces are all there to make this one of the strongest parts of the application, but the section doesn’t quite come together in a concise fashion and tends, toward the end especially, to get a bit repetitive and muddled.

I was also thrown off a little by a line on page 110 in which the Department states that the turnaround teams will work in various ways to “improve education for all students, particularly underrepresented youth, youth in poverty and females.”

Females? Is a lack of school performance by Maine’s females really an issue?  The state’s own dropout data shows that males are having the tougher go of it, and the University of Maine System’s enrollment data says much the same thing.

In any event, the Department had a couple of challenges to overcome in this section and they threaded the needle relatively well. The plan they have would seemingly give underachieving districts some effective tools to work with, though a bit more hard evidence that this approach has worked before, as the state claims, would have helped their case. I personally would have liked to see more in the way of school and district accountability in this section, especially some additional school choice provisions, but one takes what one can get when one is not running things.

Next up, an interesting catch-all section that touches on school funding, charter schools (or lack thereof), and the state’s broader reform approach. Looks to be an interesting one.

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