School leadership is second only to classroom instruction in shaping the quality of the preK–12 education. Principals and other administrators are key to hiring and retaining quality educators, and they help establish and maintain the culture and conditions conducive to excellence in teaching and student learning.
That’s why in 2015 the Maine Legislature created a task force on school leadership.
Maine faces numerous challenges when it comes to developing leaders in public schools, including difficulties identifying, nurturing, recruiting and retaining people in leadership positions. Other states have similar problems, but Maine’s largely rural, economically and socially diverse population creates unique issues for educational leaders, says Janet Fairman, associate professor in the University of Maine College of Education and Human Development.
“We’ll go into a school one year, and when we come back the next year, they have a new principal, a new superintendent, a new special education director. It’s hard to generate any kind of positive momentum when you have turnover like that at the top,” Fairman says.
The legislative task force’s final report, released in 2016, identified many of these challenges, and proposed solutions, including streamlining programs to prepare and license principals and creating mentorship opportunities to encourage teachers to ease into leadership positions.
As politicians and university officials
increasingly talk about collaboration
as not just a goal, but a necessity for
the University of Maine System,
MEPRI stands as a model of what is possible.
The task force’s work grew out of a multiyear project examining high-performing schools in the state. It was conducted by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute (MEPRI), a collaborative effort of the University of Maine System and the Legislature. But the report was not the end of lawmakers’ interest in the issue. Over the next few years, legislators tasked MEPRI with examining strategies and initiatives that could promote educational leadership development.
MEPRI co-director Fairman co-authored two recent reports with Ian Mette, a faculty member in educational leadership at UMaine. They explored different aspects of school leadership in Maine.
The first report, based on a statewide survey of principals and central office personnel, found that while schools employed a variety of strategies to encourage teachers to take on leadership responsibilities, the focus was mostly on curriculum and instruction.
In addition, the survey indicated a disconnect between the perceptions of district administrators and principals about support for leadership. While administrators thought there were adequate measures in place for leaders, principals said there should be more.
The follow-up report examined two innovative models in Maine that are different from the traditional principal-led school: The Bangor School District’s mix of “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches to leadership development, and two schools that are entirely teacher-led.
“Legislators have indicated that they want MEPRI to continue exploring programs and strategies to support leadership development in the coming years,” says Fairman.
The nonpartisan research institute turns 25 this year. The Legislature established MEPRI in 1995 “to collect and analyze education information and perform targeted education research for the Legislature.”
Over the years, MEPRI has produced hundreds of reports on topics ranging from Maine’s statewide middle school laptop program to public preschool to teacher turnover and shortages.
As politicians and university officials increasingly talk about collaboration as not just a goal, but a necessity for the University of Maine System, MEPRI stands as a model of what is possible.
David Silvernail and Walter McIntire at the University of Southern Maine and UMaine, respectively, are MEPRI’s founding co-directors.
“It hasn’t strayed from the original goal of providing impartial, fact-based research and analysis,” says Silvernail, former director of USM’s Center for Education Policy, Applied Research, and Evaluation (CEPARE), and McIntire, former UMaine professor of education.
“That’s so important, because lawmakers will often hear from interest groups or from political appointees, who may have an agenda when it comes to particular policy. MEPRI doesn’t have an agenda, other than providing good information and data,” says Silvernail, who also was a professor of educational research and evaluation at USM.
Since 2015, the institute has been led by Fairman and Amy Johnson, who took over at CEPARE when Silvernail retired. In addition to McIntire, UMaine faculty members Walter Harris and Craig Masonco directed MEPRI prior to Fairman.
“Our model is built on sharing resources and taking advantage of the expertise at both institutions,” Johnson says.
Collaboration is built into the institute’s funding structure. In 2019, the Legislature appropriated $250,000 for MEPRI, and the University of Maine System contributed $125,000.
Various faculty, staff and graduate students
at UMaine and USM with specific knowledge
in different areas of education
are called upon each year to
contribute to MEPRI’s work.
In addition, the two campuses fund a portion of the salaries and benefits of their respective co-directors, as well as provide in-kind support. The institute also has a contract with the Maine Department of Education to perform ongoing research.
Various faculty, staff and graduate students at both institutions with specific knowledge in different areas of education are called upon each year to contribute to MEPRI’s work.
“Janet and I try to check in on a weekly basis to stay up-to-date not only on our shared projects, but if there’s a project that we are working on at USM or that they are working on at UMaine, we use each other as a sounding board for how things are going on those projects as well,” Johnson says.
Another aspect of the institute’s governing structure that promotes collaboration is a steering committee, which serves in an advisory role as MEPRI develops its work plan each year.
Representatives from the Legislature, Maine Department of Education (MDOE) and the state Board of Education, as well as from professional organizations such as the Maine School Management Association, the Maine Education Association and the Maine Municipal Association serve on the committee.
These stakeholders help MEPRI brainstorm topics to study. MDOE and the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs select the final list of projects based on priority. The steering committee also assists MEPRI in accessing individuals with specific knowledge related to a particular study, and with disseminating surveys statewide to its members.
Since Fairman and Johnson became co-directors, MEPRI has produced at least a half-dozen reports a year. All of its publications since 2011 are available online, with select publications from 2010 and earlier on the MEPRI website.
Lawmakers speak glowingly of MEPRI’s role in shaping education policy in Maine.
“MEPRI is essential to our work,” says Rep. Tori Kornfield of Bangor, who has served eight years in the Maine House of Representatives, six of them as House chair of the education committee.
“Every bill has a public hearing and a work session, and in the public hearing we get a lot of anecdotal testimony, which is wonderful,” Kornfield says. “But you can’t base policy on it. We need facts and data, and that’s what MEPRI gives us.”
Brian Langley of Ellsworth served 10 years in the Legislature — one term in the House and four terms in the Senate. He was on the education committee most of that time, including six years as Senate chair.
“By the end of my tenure, MEPRI was a very valued and trusted source of information. It is critical and will be even more so in the future as people have more trouble figuring out if they trust sources of information,” says Langley, now the executive director of Bridge Academy Maine.
School district reorganization
“It’s the link to the University of Maine (System) that gives it its credibility,” he adds.
Both Langley and Kornfield say they’ve spoken to lawmakers from other states who are fascinated by MEPRI, some of whom have tried to implement a similar research institute in their legislatures.
Fairman and Johnson say the trust policymakers have in MEPRI is a direct result of its longevity. This has allowed the institute to study perennial issues, including the state’s school funding formula, teacher shortages in STEM and special education, and long-term ramifications of policy choices, such as school district consolidation.
“MEPRI’s had an impact on education policy in Maine, not to mention nationally and internationally,” Fairman says, adding that she receives a handful of calls and emails every year from people in other states and abroad who have come across MEPRI reports online and want to discuss how the findings might apply to their circumstances or jurisdictions.
In many cases, MEPRI’s research has shown there aren’t one-size-fits-all solutions to thorny issues facing Maine’s schools. One recent example was a 2012 state law that required public schools to implement proficiency-based standards for high school graduation. MEPRI documented implementation problems in multiple studies that started as soon as the law went into effect. In 2018, lawmakers repealed the requirement.
“That’s an example of an issue where there was no silver bullet,” Johnson says.
In fact, a 2019 MEPRI survey of Maine superintendents found that while 38% of respondents said they would probably return to a system in which students are only required to take a certain number of credit hours to graduate, about a quarter said they planned to keep the proficiency-based standards in their districts. Another 25% said they were considering a “hybrid” system, and 11% were taking a wait-and-see approach.
“Sometimes you have policies where the intentions are good, but the requirements can be burdensome. What our research showed was that it was better to give districts a choice,” Fairman says.
As MEPRI marks 25 years of service to the state, Fairman and Johnson say the institute’s best years are ahead. They’re committed to continuing the productive partnership between the two university campuses, as well as the service to the state.
“We’re maybe not the biggest initiative,” says Johnson, “but I’d argue we have a pretty big impact.”
MEPRI reports include:
“Challenges with Teacher Retention and Staffing and Shortages in Maine School Districts”
“Exploring Innovative Models for
School Leadership in Maine”
“Study of a Regional Approach for Delivering Special Education Programs and Services in Maine”
“Factors Influencing Parents’ Decision to Use Public Pre-K Programs in Maine: Results of a Parent Survey”