June 23, 2018
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Reading between the lines

Pat Wellenbach | AP
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen


In 1995, then-Gov. Angus King was ready to install signs at the Maine border touting that the state’s fourth-graders were the best in the nation when it came to reading. Nearly two decades later, there isn’t much to cheer about.

Last year, Maine’s fourth-graders scored just at the national average when it came to reading, based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a nationwide test in several subject areas.

This isn’t just an academic discussion. Poor school outcomes translate to an undertrained work force, an impediment to economic growth and financial prosperity.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen says it doesn’t matter what happened from 1994 to now to cause Maine’s performance to decline. Rather, he said, it is important that the state move in the right direction.

He could be right, but there isn’t much evidence to offer encouragement.

For years, there have been special interest groups devoted to improving educational outcomes in the state. Their promises ranged from near universal prekindergarten programs to grade-school reading proficiency well above the national average to dramatically increasing the number of Mainers with college degrees. All have come up short.

Even the Maine Development Foundation, a group dedicated to economic growth, is waving a flag, a red one.

The foundation set a benchmark of 50 percent of Maine students reaching reading proficiency by 2015. Instead, the state’s scores moved in the opposite direction.

In 1994, about 41 percent of Maine’s fourth-graders were reading at grade level or above, according to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test that measures students in a variety of subjects. That was 13 percentage points above the national average of 28 percent. Maine’s scores were the highest in the nation.

In 2011, after years of flat scores for Maine and improving ones in other states, Maine’s fourth-grade reading proficiency rate, according to NAEP, is 32 percent — dead even with the national average.

For this reason, the development foundation gave the state a red flag for reading proficiency this year in its annual Measures of Growth report.

“This is a predictor of future student success and public costs as well as a measure of the effectiveness of previous investments [in education] … Ultimately, positive movement on many other economic indicators starts with kids having the tools to become productive members of society,” the foundation said in its report.

In other words, if Maine doesn’t start making positive progress soon in reading — and graduation rates and other important education measures — the state’s economy will continue to suffer.

No new grand plans are needed. Schools like the West Bath School and Fairmount School in Bangor have shown that fully incorporating time-tested methods into everyday teaching can dramatically improve students’ reading.

New money isn’t needed. Maine already spends 50 percent more, per student, than the national average.

What is needed is a broad realization that the status quo is unacceptable and that higher standards must — and can — be met.

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