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What happened to Maine’s young readers?

Posted May 29, 2012, at 3:40 p.m.

Last month the Maine Development Foundation released its annual “Measures of Growth” report. A surprising red flag in the 25 indicators tracked in this useful report was one for fourth grade reading. In 2011, only 32 percent of Maine’s fourth grade readers were reading at grade level or above, according to the highly regarded National Assessment of Education Progress, given annually to fourth and eighth graders across the country. Sadly for the U.S. as a whole, 32 percent was actually the national average.

This is hardly acceptable for the nation or for Maine, particularly as reading

comprehension is one of the foundational skills that determines future academic performance. Moreover, in Maine’s case these results are a far cry from the nation-leading performance of Maine’s fourth graders back in the early ’90s. As the Bangor Daily News reported in an editorial on this topic, back then Gov. Angus King was ready to install signs at the Maine border lauding the achievements of Maine’s fourth graders. There was even talk of changing the motto on Maine’s license plates from “Vacationland” to “The Learning State.”

What has happened? Ostensibly, the past 20 years has brought significant

improvements to Maine’s education system. Maine was one of the first states to pass a set of statewide learning standards: Maine’s Learning Results, which have fostered much constructive dialogue among educators on teaching practice. In addition, the state has increased funding for the K-12 system faster than the national average. Maine also has one of the lowest student-to-teacher ratios in the nation. Moreover, respected educators with whom I have discussed the state of education in Maine believe that teachers are generally better prepared and supported than they were 20 years ago.

The sad fact is nobody knows how to explain the lack of more demonstrable education achievement across the state. Could it be that today’s student is that much more difficult to teach? Certainly youth in the era of the cellphone, computer and Xbox technology are bombarded with much more that can distract. Teachers often talk about the short attention span of the current generation. This is a “connected” generation texting their way forward into adulthood, but at what cost?

Even if it is true that today’s students are more frenetic in their activities, would we really see this impact in fourth grade? If so, the problem is a significant one.

A recent OpEd in the New York Times by Thomas Friedman placed some of the blame for the American students’ decline in education performance on parents. Friedman noted that parents are not as demanding of good educational results. Some parents are simply too absorbed with the demands of work to be as supportive as in earlier generations. Many are more concerned about their child’s self-esteem than whether their child is doing their homework. The same parents that faithfully drive their child to soccer practice every day often don’t see the link between homework, practice and good performance in school.

Then there is the flawed reform process here in Maine that unfolded in the early ’90s after the passage of Maine Learning Results. Maine attempted to balance the strong tradition of local control of schools with the Bush administration’s requirements for more assessment of student performance in its No Child Left Behind legislation by developing a system of local assessment that simply failed of its own weight.

It has taken the state several years to regroup. The assessment process has been simplified. Maine has adopted the same kind of annual testing that most other states employ. Moreover, the Legislature recently passed a law that mandates the kind of proficiency-based diploma envisioned by the learning results. Nonetheless, the turmoil in many Maine school districts in the period from the mid-’90s to the end of the Baldacci administration in 2010 has to be one of the reasons contributing to the lack of progress in educational performance.

Our current situation is disturbing, even alarming. If we can’t figure out how to move the needle on fourth grade literacy, we will saddle the coming generation with a burden they do not deserve. The red flag from this year’s “Measures of Growth” report should be setting off alarm bells all over Maine. It is time for all of us to demand more from our students and more from our parents.

Better teachers can make a big difference, but not without more support from parents and more effort from students.

Ron Bancroft is a resident of Cumberland.

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