A lack of clarity on how Maine would achieve its education reform objectives and a lack of widespread support for them proved fatal for the state’s bid in the federal Race to the Top education reform competition.

It also didn’t help, according to the competition’s scorecard, that the Pine Tree State doesn’t allow charter schools, tie teacher and principal pay to students’ academic performance or make much use of alternative certification paths for teachers.

The U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday released the scorecards and reviewers’ comments for each of the 36 state and district applications submitted for the second round of Race to the Top.

The department on Tuesday announced that Washington, D.C., and nine states – including New England neighbors Massachusetts and Rhode Island – would share in $3.4 billion in federal award money.

Maine earned a score of 283.4 points in the competition on a 500-point scale, placing it 33rd in the competition.

The state’s application had a few bright spots. Reviewers largely praised Maine’s record implementing statewide curriculum standards and endorsed the state’s approach to turning around the lowest-performing schools.

But Maine lost dozens of points in categories that rated the state’s use of student performance data as a factor to determine teacher and principal pay and evaluations, its plan of action for improving teacher preparation programs and its record of equitable distribution of highly qualified teachers across the state.

Reviewers also were critical of the low level of statewide support for the state’s reform plan. Just 82 of more than 200 school districts signed on in support; 24 local teachers’ unions volunteered their support. Neither the statewide teachers’ union, the Maine Education Association, nor the Maine Principals’ Association submitted letters of support.

“The lack of teacher support is a critical weakness,” wrote one Department of Education reviewer. “The lack of (school district) participation is a weakness in ensuring broad impact.”

Maine also received none of the points tied to favorable conditions for charter schools, since Maine law doesn’t allow the independently run public schools.

“The application describes goals for each of the Race to the Top reform areas, but lacks specificity regarding how the state would actualize each goal,” a reviewer wrote. “The application is general throughout and the lack of clarity about what would actually be implemented is problematic.”

Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said Maine was automatically at a disadvantage in the competition’s second round since the state couldn’t apply the first time around.

“We certainly would have benefited from more time,” Connerty-Marin said. “The important thing is we got a lot of positive comments on our standards and assessment and our vision.”

State education officials will comb through the comments, he said, to glean tips on future education reforms.

While reviewers pointed to low levels of teacher union support as a weakness, Maine Education Association President Chris Galgay said that factor wasn’t entirely to blame for Maine’s failure.

“Every local association made their own decision on it,” he said. “I think they didn’t have enough information, didn’t know what they were signing on to.”

Maine’s low score in Race to the Top – the state outscored only Montana, Mississippi and Alabama – shouldn’t be read as an indication that Maine schools are low-performing, Galgay said.

“I think we have great schools in Maine,” he said. “I think (Race to the Top) is an unfair way to just suddenly come up with a test, and say, ‘This is our criteria and you’re going to meet it.’ “

Steve Bowen, director of the Center for Education Excellence at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, said he didn’t find many surprises in the reviews of Maine’s application.

A lack of widespread support was a major factor, noted Bowen, who read Maine’s application and critiqued it at his blog, www.mainefreedomforum.com.

“Everybody debated how important that would be,” he said. “As it turns out, if you read the scorers’ comments, a lot of this is about, ‘This is a good idea, but we have serious doubts about the capacity to implement it.’ “


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