Among the school reformers…

by Steve Bowen on October 27, 2010

in Education

So how far behind is Maine in terms of school reform?

Way behind.

Though I knew this already and have been banging this drum for what seems like years at this point, I was reminded of it once again while at the annual policy meeting of the Policy Innovators in Education Network, which took place last week in Nashville.

PIE-Net, as it has come to be known, is a coalition of school reform advocacy organizations from around the country, including the Maine Heritage Policy Center. The project was launched by four of the nation’s leading school reform groups, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Center for American Progress, Education Sector, and the Center on Reinventing Public Education. These diverse organizations—some on the political right and some on the political left—have come together to advance a common reform agenda and to encourage reform at the state level through creation of PIE-Net.

The policy meeting is a chance for network members to come together and learn from one another.  This year’s meeting location, Nashville, was no accident. Tennessee, which was the winner, along with Delaware, of the first round of the Race to the Top, is already well under way advancing the series of reforms that it outlined in its winning Race to the Top application.

What are they doing that we are not? You name it.

  • Tennessee will adopt tough new standards and advanced accountability systems and launch am extensive teacher training program to support their implementation.
  • Tennessee will use its existing student performance data system, one of the nation’s best, to inform teacher and principal evaluations, which will now be done every year.
  • Tennessee will expand its student data system, allowing all stakeholders real-time access to student performance data.
  • Tennessee will place failing school systems into a state-run “Achievement School District” which will feature additional state aid and support.
  • Tennessee will strengthen accountability systems for teacher training programs and expand alternative routes to teacher certification.
  • Tennessee will increase its investment in innovation, especially in smaller, more rural districts, and expand the number of charter schools statewide.

Tennessee is not alone, of course, as states across the nation are embracing many of these reforms and more.

So when my turn came to speak up for what Maine is doing, what did I say?

I said that we had submitted an embarrassingly weak Race to the Top application, which came on the heels of embarrassingly weak Race to the Top legislation. I told them that we came in 33rd out of 36 states to apply for the Race to the Top and that there has been absolutely no fallout from this whatsoever—no investigation, no one held to account, no response of any kind from the Baldacci administration. I told them that we were in the middle of a hotly-contested governor’s race—the outcome of which will be decided next week—and that depending on the results of that race, Maine would either move forward with meaningful reforms  or maintain a largely failing status quo well into the foreseeable future. (I’ll let you decide which candidates will take us in which direction.)

I wish I could have brought all of Maine with me to this conference so that people could see, if only for a few hours, the great things that seem to be going on in school reform everywhere in the nation except here.  The whole experience was encouraging and dispiriting at the same time.

At the very least, though, you can get more information on the great things that are being down by visiting the PIE-Net website and reading how real school reform is actually moving forward in states all over our nation.

Be Sociable, Share!
  • NancyEH

    Although I appreciate efforts to make education better, let’s acknowledge that most of what your much-touted Tennessee is proposing to do – yes, proposing; they haven’t done it yet – is untested as to its effectiveness. I trust that if, after a few years, some (or all) of their strategies don’t accomplish much, you’ll be willing to say so.

  • Steve Bowen


    You’re kidding me, right? You mean to suggest that none of the things on that long list –the standards and assessment stuff, the new teacher and principal evaluation tools, the focus on under-performing schools, the innovation and charter schools – NONE of this will have ANY effect on student outcomes?? That’s ludicrous. It is well established that if we just got rid of the least effective 5-10 percent of teachers, student outcomes would skyrocket.

    And yes, they have just “proposed” it, but that is a heck of a lot more than Maine has done. Tennessee is actually doing it (with the support of their teacher unions, by the way), and so are a lot of other states.

    Here in Maine, though, more of the same…

  • Waino Waisanen

    One purpose of right wing think tanks is to promote lower living standards for teachers. First on the author’s list is the plea for easy dismissal of “poor performers”. This promotes informal employment under the virtuous guise of improving outcomes. Too many districts are incapable of even performing competent assessments due to extreme cutbacks, triage level choices and difficult administrators. A real solution would be to send all students to private schools with people of means providing the subsidy for a real school system. A Philips Exeter education for all! A rehashed version of “separate but equal” is no solution for 2010.

  • Brian Hubbell

    A Philips Exeter education for all?

    Indeed it would be interesting and instructive to compare Exeter’s expenditure-per-pupil and teacher-student ratio to those of Maine’s public schools.

    Here’s an overview of private vs. public: When schools have money….

  • NancyEH

    No, Steve, I’m not kidding. To date, there is very little evidence that any of the reforms proposed by Tennessee and other states actually produce increased student tests scores over the long term – and that’s assuming one believes student scores on mass-produced, once-a-year tests are a good measure of education.

    That being said, I have no problem with trying many, if not all, of these strategies. I just want to make sure that – if they don’t work – teachers (not unions, teachers) will not again be blamed for their failure. For example, if one were to remove the 10% least effective teachers – again, assuming we all agree on what that means – there are at least several negative outcomes:
    1. Statistically, you now have a NEW group of the 10%-least-effective teachers.
    2. All those high-achieving kids you want to become teachers are going to look at the system and think, “Are you nuts? I’m not going anywhere but a Philips-Exeter! Kids in public schools have too many issues for me to take that chance for a mere $30K.”
    3. All those high-achieving kids you want to become teachers are going to look at the system and think, “Are you nuts? I’m not going anywhere but a Philips-Exeter! I don’t want to be accused by the Maine Heritage Policy Center of being a millionaire because I taught 30 years in public schools and now have a relatively good pension.”

    If you haven’t read Bruce Baker’s (SchoolFinance101′s) multiple postings about all of this, I would suggest you do.

  • Steve Bowen

    Let’s see, where to begin…

    First, with regard to Waino’s comment, I don’t believe one of the purposes of our organization is to lower anyone’s standard of living. We do ask that public dollars be spent effectively, and with regard to teachers, we all know there are basically three kinds:

    1. Effective teachers.
    2. Ineffective teachers who could be made effective with the right training and support.
    3. Ineffective teachers who, try as they and the district might, are simply not cut out for the work.

    It is that last group that we need to ensure find something else to do. This is not to say that these are bad people. In a perfect world, everyone who liked working with children would also be an effective teacher, but we all know that is not the case. I’d like to play basketball in the NBA, but try as I might, I’m not going to get there. The NBA, though, is a meritocracy. You don’t stay there unless you are very, very good. In too many schools however, ineffective teachers remain in place for to long. We all know that is the case, and we need to develop effective systems for identifying those teachers and moving them out of the profession.

    I am truly mystified why anyone would oppose doing this. The argument seems to be “well, we don’t have a flawless way of figuring out who these ineffective teachers are, so we might as well not bother.” I don’t think that is a good enough excuse when the evidence is overwhelming that ineffective teachers have negative effects on student outcomes so dramatic that students may struggle for years to catch up.

    To Nancy’s response to my response, she is simply wrong that these reforms have been ineffective. Is anyone paying attention to what Florida has achieved over the last decade or so?? Please, please read this report:, which shows that the reforms Florida implemented under Governor Bush, which include school choice, increased accountability, a focus on teacher quality and all the other things the Race to the Top states are pursuing, have had a profound effect on student outcomes, including closing achievement gaps. These reforms work.

    With regard to your last point, let me see if I understand this. You are suggesting that young teachers are going to be disinclined to work in a school system where the least effective of their co-workers are shown the door? You think effective teachers WANT to work with ineffective teachers? Furthermore, you think Philips-Exeter doesn’t take every step necessary to ensure that they have highly effective teachers in every classroom? You think that teachers there are LESS accountable than teachers in pubic schools? I don’t even understand your argument.

    Brian, your point is what, that class size trumps teacher quality? Look, undoubtedly very large class sizes are a problem. Nobody is disputing that we want to avoid 30+ kids in a classroom. But Maine’s p/t ratio has been dropping for years as enrollments have dropped and what has it gained us? Test scores are flat, graduation rates are flat and this is despite a declining p/t ratio and dramatic increases in spending. In real terms we’re spending twice as much as we were 20-25 years ago, we have smaller class sizes than we’ve ever had, and where are the outcome gains?

    The resistance you folks have to bringing real reform to our schools is absolutely mystifying. One out of five Maine kids drops out of school! A huge percent of those that go on to college need remedial classes once there to learn – while gaining no college credit – what they failed to learn in K-12. The system isn’t working. Well, let me correct that. The system is working for two groups of people only – the 30-40percent of kids who are “good at school”(by which I mean have learned how to succeed in schools as they are run today and who NAEP tells us are meeting proficiency standards), and the adults in the system who have what amounts to lifetime employment and zero accountability.

    That’s not good enough.

  • Brian Hubbell


    My observation is simply that, if we’re honest about looking broadly to private education for examples of successful education models, then Exeter’s spending of -say- $35K per student to support of -say- an 8:1 pupil-teacher ratio should temper the popular zeal to move Maine’s public schools in the opposite direction.

    I would hypothesize that increasing Maine’s graduation rate would be more readily achieved by increasing attention to individual student needs rather than by imposing harsher uniform standards. But I assure you I’m open-minded about how that practically can be accomplished.

  • Steve Bowen


    C’mon, you can’t be suggesting that the solution to our education woes is to go from spending $12,000 per student to spending $35,000 per student. Exeter charges that because they can – the market will bear it because they are selling prestige, not simply, or even primarily, an education. Facing the fiscal reality we face, we need to look at models that spend less and get better results – and those are out there. Check out David Whitman’s book “Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism” which talks about how these inner city schools are squeezing student performance out of limited resources. (George Will has a great column on it here:

    It can be done, but it means making real reform – not reforms that increase the power of the state or the bureaucracy, by the way, but reforms that empower teachers and support them.

  • Brian Hubbell


    I’m not advocating that Maine spend $35K per-pupil because it’s impossible and I’m a pragmatist. But, while we could certainly dispute the shape of the cost-benefit curve, I have no doubt that, by most conventional measures, educational “outcomes” would improve.

    One doesn’t have to be either a Marxist or a social conservative to acknowledge that larger socio-economic themes are at play in these school-yard debates.

    Maybe you and I can take a trip to Finland and report back jointly with our recommendations after the election. ;-)

  • NancyEH

    As I said, I do not doubt there are reforms that could be undertaken to improve pretty much anything, including education in Maine. However, the conservative approach – which advocates for charter schools, pay-for-performance and less money for schools – is just as limited in its scope as is the status quo model. Let me try my “open school” charter and compare it to your “back to basics” charter over the course of 10 years. One of us is bound to do “better” on mass-produced test scores, but will it be the model or the individuals and students involved? I would predict the latter.

    As to pay-for-performance or evaluations-based-on-student-test-scores or value-added-assessments: again, I believe there is probably a statistically valid way to do this. In addition, it should be PART of a teacher evaluation process (even the MEA says so, via LD 1799). However, there are so many intermediate obstacles that conservative commentators fail to acknowledge that we never even get to a talking place.

Previous post:

Next post: