Tuell: UMaine Prof Says School Reorganization Law Proving More Negative Than Positive

UMaine Prof Says School Reorganization Law Proving More Negative Than Positive
Gordon Donaldson Says Consolidation Effort Based on False Premise, Not Backed by Research

By Will Tuell
Downeast Coastal Press, March 31, 2009

Gordon Donaldson, a University of Maine professor specializing in educational leadership, charged that the state's controversial school reorganization law is an “unwise and costly policy” during a lecture at the University of Maine at Machias (UMM) March 23, where he spoke as part of UMM’s speaker series associated with its teacher-preparation programs.

“All of the reorganization efforts over the last two years in Maine have been focused on the premise that if we change school districts around—if we make them bigger—it will do good things,” said Donaldson at the onset. “I'm turning the premise around and making it into a question. Who says that how geographically big the district is, or how many employees there are, how many kids there are, makes any difference at all?”

Donaldson, who holds three degrees from Harvard University, said the greatest impact on educational attainment comes from the classroom itself and it is the classroom, not consolidation, where the emphasis should be placed.

“Teachers are our most precious educational resource next to students,” said Donaldson. “Teachers make the biggest difference in how much and how well kids learn. Smaller schools are more successful with difficult-to-teach kids and with social and citizenship development. Bigger schools aren't as good at those things. The school's leadership can make a difference, and the most powerful differences between schools are the school's ability to challenge and support teachers' ability to constantly improve. Bottom line: Schools, if poorly led and supported, can be obstacles to superb teaching and learning. It doesn't automatically assure a school of raising achievement levels if they're well led, because in the end, it's the quality of the teachers that makes the difference.”

Donaldson argued that while teachers have the greatest impact, and schools can have a positive impact on student achievement, research suggests that school districts—and their size—has no positive or negative impact on quality of education.

“The premise of the school reorganization law is that it [school district] does make a difference,” said Donaldson. “The evidence and the literature is that there's no conclusive evidence that ties district structure, policies or size to student performance. Differences in expenditures from district to district don't even explain much in terms of differences in achievement. Spending less is just as likely to produce high achievement as spending more.”

Donaldson said that if districts have the least impact on the quality of education, larger districts, which are mandated by the school reorganization law, may have an adversarial affect.

“The socio-economic status of the community, the culture of the community, makes a bigger difference than does the size of the district. Larger districts run by more rigid bureaucracies, where decisions are made by more removed school boards—meaning more distant school boards—tend to foster policies that are less responsive to student and teacher needs. They tend to foster more of a union mentality among teachers and principals, and less accountability to parents and communities. One of the things that's already starting to happen in some of the reorganized districts is administrators are starting to form unions or associations so they can barter,” said Donaldson.

“If we had asked the governor and the folks who wrote the reorganization bill if there was any justification in the education literature to support that bill, they would have had to say 'no, there isn't'. I testified before the Education Committee in 2007 before the law was passed. Some of them weren't interested in hearing that. They already had their minds made up about what they wanted to have in it. From the beginning, the reorganization law didn't have much backing when it comes to what the research and literature on education demonstrates about things that connect to school achievement. Their goal here wasn't necessarily to increase achievement, it was to save money.”

Positive and Negative Impacts of the Law Outlined

Donaldson offered his views on the accomplishments and shortcomings of the state's school reorganization law, concluding that it has neither saved money nor created a better statewide educational system.

Nearly 73,000 hours of work had gone into reorganization planning statewide, he said, while the law itself has only reduced the number of school districts from 290 to around 200. At least $2 million in state funds has been spent on consolidation efforts since June 2007, he said. “Over $725,000 in funds directly to districts, over $800,000 in state funds to law firms and other organizations to give the state advice, over $250,000 in state funds to facilitators.”

Donaldson said that as a result of the law, 20 superintendents offices have been closed by districts merging with other districts, with a resulting savings of $1.6 million. Additionally, 58 urban and island units have been “re-labeled” versus “re-organized.”

“We were told this would save $36 million,” said Donaldson. “That was the target. The comment about whether this is going to save money begins to look a little weird at this point.”

Donaldson said that five of the newly reorganized districts involve “a large district annexing one small district,” and that “nine districts reorganized by merging two moderate-sized SADs and/or unions,” while only three reorganization plans “substantially reorganized” three or more independent school districts.

On the downside, Donaldson said that uncertainty over the law has caused increased turnover at district offices statewide, with at least 25 interim superintendents and upwards of 130 communities facing penalties for opting not to reorganize. Donaldson also cited “increased tax burdens” in some newly formed school units and “unanticipated costs” associated with transitioning to a new organizational structure.

Donaldson concluded his lecture by saying that the end result may not be worth the investment of time and money to make the reorganization process work.

“What we have here—we've been through the mill for over 21 months—is that the policy makers generally aren't interested in listening to the results of research. The results of the policy itself make me question whether anything good is going to come from it, or whether we've just wasted a lot of our energy and effort. There are some positives that I think will come from this, but they are far outweighed by the negatives.”

Gordon Donaldson , Reorganization, Liberty and Democracy

I attended the Gordon Donaldson lecture and have heard his research and opinions at other times. He pretty much hits the nail on the head. One of the problems of the state Department of Education is that they tend to rely too much on their research arm at USM, MEPRI which is the Maine Educational Policy Research Institute. I believe that they conduct most of the DOE educational research. I believe that researchers like Gordon Donaldson also need to be heard and taken seriously by the Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee and the DOE. It seems that lately the DOE doesn't listen to all voices and opinions. it also puts a PR spin on things that don't stand up under a close look. The truth is out there but it is harder to find between skewed facts and PR spin. Sites like mdischools and other voices like Gordon Donaldson's help somewhat to balance that. It seems that things are becoming more polarized and our democracy is becoming less democratic such as taking a penalty if you don't vote for consolidation. Also having a small town giving up direct control over a school and having a small weighted vote on an RSU school board. Our democracy is ours to lose. We need to be careful when dissenting voices are crushed, change is pushed on us quickly such as the consolidation mess, and we give up local control. Citizens should be skeptical when we are told that"we need to think quickly and boldly" which means we should not take the time to think things through or when we have to vote a certain way or take a penalty. This isn't democracy but is a slow erosion of our rights and liberties. Deomcracy is ours to lose and we need to be vigilant.