Education Evolving: Maine's Plan for Putting Learners First

Core Priority Area 5: Coordinated and Effective State Support

  1. Seamless integration of educational programs from early childhood into adulthood
  2. Adequate and equitable state resources for Maine’s schools
  3. Comprehensive integration of technology
  4. A robust and transparent accountability and improvement system

Far from the classrooms where learning occurs are state-level structures and systems that, while largely unknown to learners, are critical to helping them prepare for college, careers and civic life. Whether they know it or not, learners rely on coherent and consistent structures and policies at the state level that are critical to a high-functioning, learner-centered system of education.

The educational journey that learners take is made far easier when the education systems that serve them work collaboratively to align programs and practices, making the move from one educational setting to another as seamless as possible.

Maine’s public higher education institutions, for example, are taking steps to better align with each other and with the state’s high schools and Career and Technical Education centers. At the other end of the educational pipeline, Maine’s Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant proposal, while ultimately unsuccessful in winning a grant award, established a new cooperative relationship between the state Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services, that will better integrate services for preschoolers. At the high school level, a number of Maine communities are exploring ways to bring higher education facilities to high school campuses so students can easily take advantage of advanced academic opportunities. Work is also underway at the state level to identify funding sources, policies and structures that can allow more of Maine’s high school students to participate in post-secondary courses while still in high school.

It is schools and school districts that do the hard work of instructing, assessing and providing for the well-being of students; hiring effective educators, evaluating their performance and allowing them to continue their professional growth; and engaging families and the broader community in service of learning. But for them to do their important work, schools and districts need adequate and effective support from the state.

Most of that support comes in the form of state funding for schools. By approving a 2004 ballot referendum requiring a 55 percent state share of the cost of public education, Maine voters affirmed their support for a significant level of state funding for schools. Unfortunately, Maine has never reached the goal of a 55 percent state share, and the way the state’s money is distributed to Maine’s schools is a source of constant debate.

An effective state education agency is also important to supporting Maine’s public education system. The state Department of Education has a number of regulatory duties it is required to perform under law, but it also must serve to guide and support the work of Maine’s educators and school leaders.

One area where the state can play a critical role is in the coordinated integration of technology. A learner-centered educational system requires effective data systems that track learner achievement over time and across multiple educational settings. Unfortunately, local school districts have been frustrated by technology issues at the state level that have stood in the way of compatibility between local and state student information systems and streamlined submission of required data to the state. Efforts must be undertaken to address the data needs of the state’s schools and school districts and to work with them to address additional data and technology needs.

Lastly, Maine’s public schools need a state accountability structure focused on ensuring and accurately tracking the growth and achievement of each learner. The state recently began that work as part of crafting an application to the U.S. Department of Education for flexibility in implementing the accountability provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The work began with a public survey and three public forums in December 2011 focused on school improvement and accountability. The 1,500 survey responses and other feedback demonstrated a high level of interest in a fair and constructive accountability system that judges student achievement and school performance on multiple measures, rather than on the basis of a single standardized test. The Maine Department of Education has committed to the long-term work of engaging stakeholders in designing an accountability and improvement system that meets those needs.

This core priority area is divided into the following four sub-categories that each details a specific state structure or policy upon which the state’s learners and public schools depend:

  • Seamless integration of educational programs from early childhood into adulthood
  • Adequate and equitable state resources for Maine’s schools
  • Comprehensive integration of technology
  • A robust and transparent accountability and improvement system

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1. Seamless integration of educational programs from early childhood into adulthood

For a learner-centered educational system to function, all the elements of that system must be carefully aligned to allow learners to move at their own pace and have multiple opportunities to demonstrate proficiency. Too frequently, however, the various pieces of the educational system are disconnected from one another. Early childhood programs are disconnected from the elementary school programs they feed into. A middle school may embrace a learner-centered model, but the high school its students are to attend does not. Barriers are sometimes erected that prevent students from having access to Career and Technical Education programs, or that complicate the transition from high school to post-secondary educational opportunities.

Every effort must be made, from the highest levels, to ensure that educational programs are fully aligned and that they all embrace a model of schooling that puts the needs of the learner first.

Some of this important work is already underway. Last legislative session, lawmakers authorized the creation of a 16-member council on science, technology, engineering and math education, with the goal of better coordinating statewide efforts in these areas at all levels of education. Recent meetings between the Maine DOE and the state’s institutions of public higher education have resulted in an agreement to establish a collaborative working group to focus exclusively on post-secondary transition issues. And this past summer, Governor LePage signed an executive order establishing the Task Force on Expanding Early Post-Secondary Access for High School Students in Maine. The task force will soon release a report of initial findings, and intends to continue its work to expand access to early college opportunities.

At the other end of the age spectrum, the state missed out on a federal Race to the Top grant aimed at improving early childhood programming, but state officials intend to move ahead with as much of the proposed work as possible, including the development of a permanent inter-agency working group devoted to coordinating early childhood policies and practices.

Each of these efforts represents a significant step toward a more fully aligned educational system from early childhood into adulthood.

Goal: Maine students are able to move easily through a learner-centered educational system fully integrated from early childhood through adulthood.

Objective: Eliminate as many policy and operational barriers as possible that block access to educational options .

Action Steps:

Initial Action Steps

Progress on Action Steps

Response/Next Steps

5.1.a Structural reforms
Move forward with structural and other reforms to better coordinate educational programs from early childhood to adulthood.

The DOE has partnered with DHHS to create an interagency body to better coordinate early childhood programming and support.

The SAIEL (State Agency Interdepartmental Early Learning) team has developed its own plan with objectives and deliverables, which needs to be implemented. Staff will also work on finding sustainable funding streams for this initiative.

5.1.b College transitions working group
Create the Education Coordinating Committee’s (ECC) college transitions working group; complete working group’s initial report to the ECC regarding college and career readiness initiatives.

The college readiness group created a report, which is available on the DOE website.

Set forth recommendations that are being reviewed for implementation to ensure students are college and career ready when they leave school. Continue to partner with ECC on these activities.

5.1.c Early college task force
Implement the initial findings of the governor’s early post-secondary opportunities task force; support the ongoing work of the task force.

Task Force report was published and included recommendations to expand access to early post-secondary education. Legislation to implement many of the recommendations is awaiting final approval. 

Review Task Force findings and recommendations; continue to implement strategies to remove barriers on access to opportunities, as identified in the Task Force report. 

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2. Adequate and equitable state resources for Maine’s schools

Under Maine’s Constitution, it is the state’s “several towns” that are required to “make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the support and maintenance of public schools.” A significant state role in K-12 education is essential, however, to ensure that all of Maine’s young people, regardless of zip code, have equal access to a high-quality education.

The state supports Maine schools in a number of ways. First, the state provides a considerable amount of funding to local schools in the form of General Purpose Aid (GPA). For the 2012-13 school year, state GPA funding is budgeted to total more than $900 million.

What constitutes the appropriate level of state funding for schools (and how that funding is then distributed to the state’s school districts) is a subject of constant debate in Augusta. Last legislative session, a proposal was put forward to have an independent study of Maine’s school funding commissioned, and such a study should be undertaken as soon as sufficient funding can be found to finance it.

Second, the heath care needs of students are often supported by the state’s Medicaid program, MaineCare. Yet in recent years, MaineCare policy changes at the state level have had an enormous impact on the capacity of schools to provide needed health services. Still, today Maine’s school districts and the wider health care community remain uncertain about current MaineCare policies and procedures. The state Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services must partner in new ways to ensure that schools and health care providers have access to clear policies and procedures around the use of MaineCare funding.

Third, Maine’s schools are supported by the state Department of Education, which provides resources and support to Maine’s schools as well as undertaking various regulatory duties as required by state and federal law. A recent study of the Department undertaken by the Council of Chief State School Officers, however, found that the agency lacked much of the capacity it needed to effectively support Maine’s schools and school districts. The state’s school and district leaders have echoed this finding, stating that they would like to see the Department become more effective in its support and assistance.

An opportunity for a full-scale review of the Department’s work is coming in the form of Governor LePage’s zero-based budget initiative, which will require state agencies to review all programs and practices in a search for efficiencies and improved levels of service. The Department should partner with stakeholders as part of this effort to review the work of the agency and provide suggestions for improvement.

The Department’s staff is already at work reviewing internal operating procedures and practices, with the goal of improving efficiencies and customer service.

Goal: Maine’s schools are supported by adequate and effective state resources.

Objective: Undertake an independent review of the state school funding system, continue ongoing collaboration with the state Department of Health and Human Services to ensure access to funding for needed health services, and continue ongoing work to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the state Department of Education in providing technical and other kinds of support.

Action Steps:

Initial Action Steps

Progress on Action Steps

Response/Next Steps

5.2.a School funding review
Undertake an independent review of the state school funding system; and propose potential policy changes, if any, to the next legislature.

The legislature issued an RFP and commissioned an independent study of the funding law. The findings of that study are due in the fall of 2013.

The review is underway; actions may have to be undertaken in response to study recommendations.

5.2.b MaineCare manual
Support the ongoing work of Maine DHHS to create a detailed manual on MaineCare and other health and wellness-related policy and programs.

The Department has been meeting regularly with DHHS for over a year. A template of the MaineCare manual has been completed.

Once the federal Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services has approved Maine’s amendments to the state plan. Actual policy details will be incorporated in the manual.

5.2.c Zero-based budgeting (ZBB)
Use zero-based budget initiative to further review and assess Maine DOE programs and processes; propose reforms in the next biennial budget bill.

The Department used the findings of the ZBB to inform the development of its biennial budget request. The Department also secured funding for a position to do budget analysis and development.

The budget position needs to be filled so that deeper analysis of budget issues can be undertaken. The Department will continue to use the ZBB to inform its budget proposals.

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3. Comprehensive integration of technology

Since the deployment of the state’s one-to-one computing initiative a decade ago, Maine has been a leader in the integration of technology and education. There remain, however, far greater opportunities to employ technology to improve learner outcomes.

As addressed elsewhere in this plan, online and distance learning options can provide students with additional opportunities to achieve and demonstrate proficiencies. Additionally, new computer-based assessment tools can provide educators with real-time information on student achievement, allowing teachers to adapt instructional practices to meet the needs of learners. New data tools, such as the State Longitudinal Data System, will be able to track learner growth over time, and as schools move to a proficiency-based system of schooling, advanced new student information systems will allow educators to track the achievement, by each student, of multiple learning outcomes.

Effective implementation of information technology can be a cost saver as well. Public education is a remarkably paperwork-intensive business and commonly used documents such as Individualized Education Plans, which could and should be created digitally, are too often drafted on paper even now. Significant cost savings could be realized if more modern data and information technology systems were put into place. This is especially true with regard to information and data systems at the state level, where effective implementation and integration of data systems has been an issue.

There are cultural changes that need to take place as well. As technology continues to transform modern life, schools, to remain relevant, must also use technology in transformative ways. Too often, educators and administrators have seen technology as an add-on or supplement, whose primary function was to support more traditional instructional and administrative practices. In the years to come, significant work must be done to more fully and comprehensively integrate technology into the everyday work of schools and districts to take technology integration to the “next level.”

The first step in all this would be for the Department to undertake a detailed review of current data and technology initiatives and needs, both at the state and local level, with an eye toward developing an information technology “comprehensive plan.” Efforts must be made within the Department itself to better coordinate and integrate various technology projects. The Department should also work with IT directors in Maine schools to identify training and support needs.

Goal: Information and instructional technologies are supporting instructional practice and efficient school system operations.

Objective: Develop a “comprehensive plan” for technology integration, both in Maine’s schools and school districts and at the Maine DOE, developed in collaboration with IT personnel and educators across the state.

Action Steps:

Initial Action Steps

Progress on Action Steps

Response/Next Steps

5.3.a Technology, data review
Develop a comprehensive inventory of ongoing technology and data projects and initiatives.

The DOE’s data team now has a project tracking process.

The Leadership Team will undertake an intensive review of data needs across the Department to develop a clearer data project management process.

5.3.b Technology, data schools survey
Survey school unit IT directors and administrators regarding technology and data needs; use responses to develop detailed data and technology support plan.

Survey was conducted regarding technology readiness for transition to new assessments

Consider a more comprehensive survey and use that to support a data and technical support plan. Once the information is collected, further action steps can be determined.

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4. A robust and transparent accountability and improvement system

Ensuring that education policies and programs at both the state and local levels are effective requires a robust, transparent accountability and improvement system that tracks the growth and achievement of every learner. The accountability system employed by the state today, designed to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, has a number of flaws. It does not measure the growth and achievement of each learner individually, but establishes the success or failure of educators, schools and school districts by comparing this year’s class of fourth graders, for instance, to last year’s class. The system does not recognize that learners not only come to school in different places developmentally, but that they advance though their educational careers at different paces as well. Rather than using multiple measures of student achievement, the current system judges success or failure based on a single score on a single assessment at a single moment in time.

With the U.S. Department of Education expressing a willingness to allow states flexibility with regard to the accountability provisions of No Child Left Behind, Maine should undertake the effort to design and implement a comprehensive accountability structure focused on learner growth and achievement, one that uses multiple measures of learner proficiency tracked over time. Such a system should also fairly but readily identify underperforming schools, and ensure deployment of targeted and worthwhile assistance and support.

Goal: An effective school and district accountability and improvement system helps Maine’s schools meet the needs of all learners.

Objective: As part of the federal NCLB waiver process, develop a rigorous and transparent state-based accountability and improvement system that makes use of multiple measures, tracks learner growth and achievement over time, publicly reports that achievement, and holds educators, schools and school systems to account.

Action Steps:

Initial Action Steps

Progress on Action Steps

Response/Next Steps

5.4.a New accountability system
Develop a plan for the design and implementation of a new state accountability system consistent with the principles of the NCLB flexibility package.

The Department convened a stakeholder group and developed and submitted an ESEA waiver application which was approved by the US DOE in August 2013. A state-level accountability system for all schools, not just Title I schools, was implemented with the School Performance Grading System (SPGS).

Implement the new accountability system and continue the development of a system of statewide support. The DOE will also launch the next round of report cards under the SPGS in spring 2014.

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