Overview & Summary

The Western Maine Education Collaborative (WMEC) is a non-profit, regional educational cooperative comprising in the 2012-13 school year 11 school districts. While they are scattered and geographically disparate, these districts share both strengths and challenges that emerge from their rural situation. Fourteen thousand students are represented in the Collaborative.

Formed in 2005 as one way to help these rural districts cope with ongoing and worsening financial challenges, the WMEC has since developed into an organization that beyond arranging bulk purchases and facilitating the logistics of professional development has become the venue for discussions of the educational vision of the region. After years of working on a number of collaborative initiatives, the WMEC formally entered into the realm of proficiency-based/learner-centered systems in 2012. The decision to make the shift happened suddenly, but significant work led up to it. The established structures and credibility of the WMEC allowed member schools to move forward quickly. The nautical analogy says that it’s easier to turn a small ship than a large one. In this case, 11 small, district-sized ships seem to be turning ably.

This case study is an exploration of that regional turn toward proficiency-based/learner-centered education, which, in the region, they refer to as “customized learning.” The intended audience of the case study is the community of educators and policy-makers exploring implementation of proficiency-based/learner-centered systems and practices in their own school districts.

Five key lessons can be identified as contributing to the success of the WMEC’s transformative process:

  1. Collaboration: Perhaps most obviously, the lesson of the WMEC is that joining with other districts can alleviate the challenges brought on by isolation and low population. It is possible to reach critical mass both for talent and resources and doing so cuts costs and adds value to the work of the districts. Truly, though, the collaborative ethic is enacted at every level. This model inspires districts, buildings, content areas, and teachers to collaborate. Even the WMEC, as a whole, collaborates with the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF) and the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning (MCCL), another collaborative, to enact customized learning.
  2. An Effective Organization Needs to be Tended: It may seem tautological, but the WMEC was able to direct an effective organization at the customized learning initiative because they had an effective organization in the first place. From its inception, the director and the board of directors intentionally worked on the health of the organization in and of itself, apart from the initiatives it facilitated.
  3. Systems Change Requires Someone Paying Attention to the Systems: Recognizing that this is a system change, the WMEC carried the ethic of “tending the organization” into the districts, providing capacity for each district to tend organizational elements of this transformation. The WMEC brought in systems change partner Judy Enright to coach districts through the fundamental stages required by this change: vision setting, stakeholder involvement, messaging, etc.
  4. Being a Gardener in a Grass Roots Movement: The WMEC is a higher-level organization, further away from the classroom, even, than the central office; it recognizes, however, that the success of customized learning is dependent upon the engagement of teachers, students, and parents. The success of WMEC comes because the organization members recognize that their job is to create the conditions in which great work can happen. It is an organization of superintendents embracing that idea that just as a gardener can’t make the asparagus come up the administration cannot make the teachers, students, and other stakeholders grow in a precise way, at a precise time. It’s a matter of creating conditions, and membership in the WMEC provides the capacity to do that.
  5. Professional Development: Setting aside the systems approach for a moment, the question for which the WMEC was the answer was: “How can we get our teachers the professional development they need for this work” In all districts that have undertaken this work, professional development continuous, ongoing, and ubiquitous has been key. Navigating the logistics planning and finance may seem pedestrian and managerial, but woe to the district that ignores the pedestrian and managerial.

The shift toward customized learning has become central to the vision of the western Maine region. It is early in the process for many of these districts, but the capacities of the regional collaborative have allowed for impressive progress. The goal of this case study is to be helpful in describing the organization and its progress so that readers may discern broad lessons for policy and implementation.

This Center for Best Practice is a collaboration between the Maine Department of Education and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, made possible by the contributions of the Maine schools that share their stories.