Moving education forward, by racing to the top

By Ramona du Houx

March 21st, 2010

Governor John Baldacci talks to students in a Jobs For Maine Graduates program in Brunswick, where they are building boats with the Compass Project. JMG is one successful model that improves graduation rates that the governor would like to see grow.
Governor John Baldacci talks to students in a Jobs For Maine Graduates program in Brunswick, where they are building boats with the Compass Project. JMG is one successful model that improves graduation rates that the governor would like to see grow.
President Obama is investing in education with Recovery Act funds, as part of his national Race to the Top competition — a $4 billion federal education initiative on education reform. In an exclusive interview Governor John Baldacci talked about his new education initiatives mentioned in his State of the State address, which will also increase Maine’s chances for $75 million or more in federal Race to the Top funds.

“Maine is well poised to be successful in the Race to the Top competition. Our student achievement consistently puts us in the top five to ten states in the country. Offering our children an outstanding education is one of our most fundamental obligations. It will shape our future. To compete successfully in the global economy, we need to excel in educating our students.
“We are at a crossroads in education. We cannot afford to let the financial situation today stop us in our tracks. We cannot tell our sixth and seventh graders that we have some great ideas for improving high school, but we won’t implement them until after they have graduated. We know that new data systems are allowing school systems around the country to do a better job of identifying successful education models and where more work needs to be done.
“It’s time for action.”

That action begins with legislation that the governor has introduced to improve Maine’s education system. The immediacy is heightened by the Race to the Top application deadline of June first.

“We have a tight schedule here. I want to be crystal clear that we are not calling for charter schools; we are calling for innovative schools. Our schools need to have the right tools, so that we can more effectively raise the standards for our students to be successful in a global economy.”

There are major issues states must address to obtain Race to the Top funds: adopt better student assessments, evaluate teachers and principals, add curriculum that will prepare students better for college and global-economy careers, take measures to improve the dropout rate, and track student progress. The governor said that these steps are important to do as a state.

“It’s the right thing to do. We can’t leave our students behind. Maine is not competing with New Hampshire and Massachusetts. We are all competing with the world.
“First, we will develop a system for using student achievement as one way to measure teacher and principal effectiveness.
“There is a lot of research out there about how different things affect student outcomes. But in study after study, one thing by far knocks them all out of the water: effective teachers.
“Student test scores alone will not be the basis for evaluating teachers. With new data systems, we will be able to consider the makeup of a classroom — the various levels and skills that students bring as they start the school year, so that we can evaluate their progress over the year, rather than simply compare one class to another, or this year’s class to last.”

Evaluating where a student stands academically and how efficient Maine’s teachers and principals are is critical. Engaging students in the excitement of learning with innovative approaches that will better position them for the jobs in a knowledge-based economy is equally important.

“I want to see schools try new ways to reach students, to keep kids in school, and to make sure they graduate ready for college, career, and citizenship.
“I have proposed legislation to allow for innovative public schools. These schools will be entirely under the jurisdiction of the local school board, staffed with certified and qualified teachers. They will be subject to the same employee contracts as the rest of the district. They will have open enrollment — meaning they can’t pick and choose the students they want.
“They will have some independence, as well. They will be able to set their own schedules — both the daily schedule and the year’s schedule. They will have control over their own school-level budget. They will be required to offer extended learning programs. And they will have flexibility in the instructional program.”

The majority of states have signed on to adopting the new Common Core Standards; the governor wants Maine to, as well.alt

“Until now, the United States has remained one of the few industrialized countries in the world without national standards.
“The Common Core Standards will allow us to really understand how we are doing as a state, where we are excelling, where we need to do more work. We will be able to look to other states for models so, that we can constantly improve and give students new opportunities. And it will allow us to share our areas of expertise and professional training with other states.”

Some school systems throughout the state have already been trying innovative approaches. Programs like Jobs for Maine Graduates (JMG) have turned the lives of students around. The Great Maine Schools Project at the Mitchell Institute has been implementing new models in schools.

“Our plan will incorporate innovative practices that we know are making a difference — we will shamelessly steal from other states and countries models that have been shown to be effective in raising student performance, engaging students, and reducing dropout rates.
“We will partner with the schools that have innovative programs which are already working in districts throughout the state, like the Gray-New Gloucester and Waterboro, school systems, which are both pioneering a standards-based system. In these school systems more 21st-century life skills are taught, and students only advance when they demonstrate proficiency.
“The Mitchell Institute does a tremendous job and JMG is a great example; we’d like to see JMG expand.”

JMG is a public-private partnership, with 40 percent of the funds coming through the Maine Department of Education and the rest from private business. JMG currently serves more than 4,000 middle and high school students, the majority of whom have been identified as being at risk of not graduating. This past year, 96 percent of seniors who were enrolled in JMG successfully graduated from high school. Governor Baldacci serves as chair of Jobs for America’s Graduates, the national branch of JMG, and has been nationally recognized for his work with the program.

“I watched JMG in action in Newport. The kids went to a classroom in a trailer — enthused. They enjoyed the class. They were relaxed and laughed. Usually when I walk into a classroom, the students look bored, and they have their heads in their textbooks. With JMG they were engaged with activities, and there was a real connection with their instructor. They were interested in learning. That sea change in attitude says a lot about the JMG program, and the wonderful job Craig Larabee, the executive director, does. For sixteen consecutive years, JMG has been recognized on the national level for the consistent quality and high level of success it helps students achieve.”

Since Baldacci took office, the focus and training that Technical Education Centers offer has been dramatically expanded. This and other areas of educational innovation will be used in the DOE application for federal funding.
“Our Career and Technical Education centers are the unsung heroes of the Maine education system, preparing our students for the careers and jobs of the future. We have students learning about biotechnology at the Capital Area Technical Center in Augusta. Other students in CTE centers are learning weatherization and green-energy technologies. This new, alternative-energy field has tremendous growth possibilities in Maine. We are already New England’s largest wind-energy producer, and our offshore wind potential could feed markets throughout the region. Technical skills being taught at CTE centers will help produce a highly skilled workforce to fill these future jobs.
“Schools are also partnering with businesses to create STEM-related internships. Some of these partnerships have given students hands-on learning experiences at companies working with green-energy technologies and composites. Maine’s students deserve a world-class education, so they can gain top jobs; enhancing our STEM curriculum is key.”

The Maine STEM Collaborative, which began in 2007, is a statewide partnership of education, research, business, government, and nonprofit groups seeking to improve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education in Maine.
There are areas the DOE have identified that they would like to expand as well as Advanced Placement programs and the International Baccalaureate Program. The latter program incorporates problem solving and critical thinking into the high school curriculum, better preparing students for college-level work. Greeley High School in Cumberland and Kennebunk High School are the first two in the state to offer this challenging curriculum.

“The number of high school students enrolling in college courses as juniors and seniors through the Aspirations Incentive Program has more than tripled since I took office. These are all programs that turn out students better prepared for the workplace of tomorrow. There are also programs that — because they engage students and allow them to learn skills in ways that are meaningful and relevant to them — keep kids in school, like JMG.

“If students don’t have a good education, they are going to be struggling the rest of their lives. With a solid education, they will able to hang out their shingle and set up their own business and be their own boss.
“The bottom line is that this is good education policy for the future of the state. We must be innovative. We owe it to our kids to do everything we can to improve the quality of their education, which will improve Maine’s quality of life. It’s their future, as well as ours.”
For other information on New education programs and online mba options are making a college education more accessible to many students.