Maine Schools in Focus: MEPRI — Enduring Partnerships to Support Data-Informed Education Policy
Janet Fairman, University of Maine/Co-director, Maine Education Policy Research Institute
Amy Johnson, University of Southern Maine/Co-director, Maine Education Policy Research Institute
In today’s increasingly complex world, the challenges faced by students and educators are difficult to solve through policy. Interventions or programs are often costly, difficult to implement, and hard to sustain without continued funding and training supports. Citizens and policymakers disagree over which problems in education should be a priority, which solutions are best, and how to fund them. School and state education leaders struggle to identify and select the most effective interventions in the best of cases, and even more so if they lack trustworthy and timely research evidence to inform their decisions. Another significant challenge centers around the increasingly specific and wide-ranging state and federal accountability requirements that, in turn, prompt state education agencies to require increased data and reporting from school districts.
Maine has not been spared from any of these challenges. However, for decades Maine has also been on the forefront of innovation in public education. One example of a creative approach was the creation of an education policy research entity outside of state government, funded through the state and two state university campuses (University of Maine and the University of Southern Maine), to create a resource for objective and non-partisan research, evaluation, and policy analysis. The Maine Education Policy Research Institute (MEPRI) was created through statute in 1995 (Maine Revised Statutes, Title 20-A, section 10) and has provided on-going and broad-ranging service to the state for 25 years. In this brief, we describe the role and mission of MEPRI and our “recipe” for providing sound and locally-relevant research evidence that policymakers can to apply to their questions.
MEPRI works through a variety of partnerships. First, MEPRI is a collaboration of state government (the legislature and the Maine Department of Education) and the University of Maine System (UMS). Both partners fund the work of MEPRI’s legislative workplan each year. The UMS provides the research space, technology, and administrative support, and houses the faculty and professional research staff with the expertise to carry out the work. Graduate students assist with data collection and analysis, gaining first-hand professional training opportunities in the process.
Second, MEPRI’s work is guided by a steering committee that represents key education stakeholder groups and professional organizations in the state. Member organizations are outlined in the statute that created MEPRI. These groups allow MEPRI researchers to tap into the knowledge of policymakers, administrators, educators and advocacy groups to help refine the questions and methods used to investigate education topics. These groups also facilitate the dissemination of statewide surveys to their members.
Third, while MEPRI was initially established to be a research resource to state legislators, the work has expanded to also include the executive branch of government. MEPRI researchers design studies so as to make efficient use of data already available through the state education agency while gathering new information to address the needs of both the Maine Department of Education (MDOE) and the state legislature. In this way, MEPRI serves as a nexus of policy questions and data, facilitating collaboration and communication across state government.
Finally, MEPRI has fostered strong collaboration between the UMaine and USM campuses. The co-directors and their research teams collaborate on specific MEPRI projects and studies, and on overall oversight of the work. The co-directors reach out to different faculty each year to lend expertise that is relevant to the specific topics of MEPRI studies. This allows MEPRI to operate with lean staffing, to share the diverse expertise on each campus, and to conduct larger, multi-year evaluation projects.
Over the past 25 years, MEPRI has covered a wide-ranging scope of topics. Recent highlights include:
- Monitoring the progress of school districts in implementing state learning standards and assessment systems. Over the years, this work has provided important information to state policymakers to assess where additional supports may be needed. In the case of the Maine’s Proficiency-based High School Diploma Systems, MEPRI’s multi-year investigations revealed strong opposition to some elements of the policy and struggles with uneven implementation, which ultimately convinced state legislators to revise the mandate to allow for greater flexibility at the local level.
- Analyzing and reporting on progress and gaps with students’ academic achievement, and the impact of specific intervention efforts. For example, MEPRI conducted a multi-year evaluation of a federally-funded early reading intervention for high needs schools in Maine (Maine Reading First) which tracked impacts for different student subgroups and grade levels and informed both state and federal policy responses and adjustments. MEPRI is currently evaluating Maine’s Math4ME program which provides professional development and coaching feedback to special education teachers to improve math instruction and student outcomes in grades 3-8, as well as MoMEntum, an early literacy intervention for students and teachers in grades PreK through 3.
- Early childhood education and PreK programming has also been a subject of MEPRI work. With increased demand for high quality and full-day public preschool options, the state and local districts are working through various strategies to expand access and improve quality. MEPRI’s data collection on that topic will continue to inform both state and local policy to facilitate the expansion and improvement of public PreK programs.
- MEPRI has investigated innovative educational practices at the statewide and local levels. When Maine rolled out its novel one-to-one computing technology initiative for middle grades in 2002, MEPRI combined the resources of both campus teams to conduct a multi-year evaluation of early implementation and impacts.
More recently, responding to concerns about meeting the need for effective school leadership in the coming decades, MEPRI has studied a local university and school district partnership that supports leadership development for principals and teachers, similar partnerships that support a “grow your own” approach to helping school staff become certified teachers, and new experiments in teacher-led schools.
- With state and national concern about increased teacher retirements and attrition, and growing needs of students for social and emotional supports, MEPRI has studied the state and national trends in these areas and examined the different needs and challenges across rural and more urban parts of the state. Multi-year investigations of Maine’s Performance Evaluation and Professional Growth (PE/PG) Systems allowed MEPRI to inform both the MDOE and the state legislature about implementation progress and challenges, including on-going local needs for staffing and professional development to successfully meet policy goals.
- Without an adequate and predictable system to fund PreK-12 education, none of the state’s initiatives would be feasible. MEPRI researchers, most notably founding Director David Silvernail, were heavily involved in analyzing data to support a state-level task force that developed the state’s Essential Programs and Services adequacy-based education funding formula. This first-of-its kind attempt to develop funding levels that are grounded in student needs rather than community wealth has been externally reviewed by national experts and found to be a more equitable model for school funding (Picus et al, 2013). MEPRI continues to support the funding model with an ongoing contract to conduct data analysis about how well the EPS formula continues to fit district spending patterns and needs.
While the immediate impact of MEPRI’s work on state education policymaking can be assessed in part by citing specific MEPRI reports and briefings that influenced policy development, revision, or elimination, MEPRI’s enduring impact over time and its value to the state can also be measured through the perceptions of state policymakers and others. Senator Rebecca Millet, a current and former co-chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs in the state legislature, described the importance of having a resource like MEPRI in Maine: “We are so fortunate in the Maine legislature to be able to not only use the strong research of MEPRI to inform our discussions and decisions, but to request specific analysis that strengthens and guides policy making” Representative Tori Kornfield, also a current and former co-chair of the same committee, shared a similar observation: “The elected officials in the State Legislature come into office wanting to do their best for the people of Maine. It is essential to good governance that we have the facts to make smart policy decisions. On the Education Committee, we depend on MEPRI to give us the data to help us make solid educational policy for our students.”
Information about MEPRI’s governance structure and a list of recent reports can be found on our website.
- Picus, L., Odden, A., Goetz, M., Griffith, M., Glenn, W., Hirshberg, D., & Aportela, A. (2013). An Independent review of Maine’s Essential Program’s and Services Funding Act: Part 1. North Hollywood, CA: L. Picus &Associates.
- Picus, L., Odden, A., Goetz, M., Aportela, A., & Griffith, M. (2013). An Independent review of Maine’s Essential Program’s and Services Funding Act: Part 2. North Hollywood, CA: L. Picus &Associates.
Any opinions, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the Maine Schools in Focus briefs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect institutional positions or views of the College of Education and Human Development or the University of Maine.