Education is job 1 for economy, future

By Yellow Light Breen, Special to the BDN
Posted Oct. 24, 2010, at 8:21 p.m.

It’s time to go beyond the tired rhetoric that Maine’s young people are our future and work to create that future. Their future and the future of Maine’s economy depend on a serious and sustained commitment to improve Maine education at all levels.

A gubernatorial forum that will be broadcast this Wednesday night will show just how bright Maine’s future could be.

With support from the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education, an impressive group of young people and community supporters across the state has organized an unprecedented student-led forum, focused on education. In addition to the live broadcast on WABI, there will be more than 20 interactive community watch sites throughout Maine.

This debate represents one more step in the PrepareMaine initiative that MCEE launched in May. The initiative has united business, education, parent, civic and law enforcement leaders around a vision of a 21st century educational system, one that prepares all people for success in college, career, life and citizenship.

MCEE is an alliance of business and educational leaders, sharing a common understanding that education is Maine’s most important economic development investment. Ninety percent of the high-growth jobs in the next decade will require post-high school education and training. Maine must strengthen its entire educational system, from early childhood through college and lifelong learning, to prepare our residents for those jobs and allow businesses to create them.

It is fitting that Maine’s gubernatorial candidates have one of their final debates on the subject of education. The economy is foremost on everyone’s minds, but Maine voters understand how inextricably education and the economy are linked.

A recent Maine Today Media poll revealed that 70 percent of Maine voters have significant concerns about education. And despite our tough fiscal condition, about 70 percent support directing more Maine tax dollars toward public higher education, and almost half think the state does not spend enough on K-12 education (compared to only 14 percent who think the state spends too much).

Realistically, we will not have the short-term tax revenue to expand funding — but we must use this strong, shared commitment to raise performance with the resources we have already.

A year of conversations across the state indicates that Mainers understand that our early childhood programs, public schools, colleges and work force programs need to function as one system, preparing all of our residents for future success.

Strengthening education begins by setting clear goals. Early childhood programs must ensure that all young children enter kindergarten prepared. Public schools must make all children proficient in reading and math by third grade, and ultimately graduate all students with a diploma that reflects real mastery of core subjects.

We then have to turn around Maine’s last-in-New England standing in earning two- and four-year college degrees by making postsecondary education and training more accessible, productive and relevant.

This work needs to build on the strengths Maine already has — our track record of improvement over the past 40 years and the bright spots of extraordinary success in communities and schools across Maine. Maine communities already have demonstrated their ability to come together to make huge strides for their students.

The rural western Maine towns of Jackman and Moose River raised their local high school’s college-going rates from 72 percent to 98 percent in the space of six years. They engaged the whole community in raising expectations for educational attainment and dramatically raised parent engagement. They developed more student-centered approaches to teaching and learning, set high standards and made rigorous use of data to track results.

Mainers also can learn a lot from Searsport District High School, which started near the bottom of the state’s rankings but has shown the fastest improvement in just three years. The school set comprehensive standards for graduation, emphasized quality teaching through improved professional development and more student-centered instructional approaches with interventions for those who struggled.

No gubernatorial candidate will have all of the answers to Maine’s educational challenges. What we need, however, is a renewed commitment to making education job one in our economic development strategy. With communitywide engagement, focus on research-supported strategies, rigorous evaluation of results and a sustained commitment to follow through on reforms over this decade, we can carve the surest path to a brighter future for all of us.

Tune in at 7 p.m. Wednesday night, and then go to www.preparemaine.org to learn more about how you can play your part in helping improve education in Maine.

Yellow Light Breen is a senior vice president at Bangor Savings Bank and chairman of the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education.

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/10/24/opinion/education-is-job-1-for-economy-future/ printed on September 22, 2014