AUGUSTA, Maine — Tens of thousands of Maine kids do not find school very challenging, according to a 2011 survey of school-age children. The finding does not surprise some state leaders who have been pushing for more challenging school classes.
“This shows we have more work to do and we are working on it,” said Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen. “I think there is a broad understanding that this generation of kids needs to see a level of engagement that we didn’t have to think about a generation ago.”
The federal Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress asks students several questions about how they are taught and whether they think they are learning. For example, 37 percent of fourth graders in the country say their math work is “often” or “always” too easy. In Maine, 39 percent of fourth graders answered that their math work is “often” or “always” too easy.
Another measure educators say is important is how many pages they read a day for classwork and homework. Nationally, 67 percent read 15 pages or less a day, but in Maine it is 56 percent. What concerns many is that in Maine 23 percent say they read 5 or fewer pages a day.
“We are working on a lot of pieces to improve courses and make them more rigorous,” Bowen said. “But we know we still have a lot more to do.”
Bowen said an example of where schools are facing a serious problem keeping a student interested is when they are talented in a specific area. He said a gifted math student may go through all the higher math courses a high school offers in two years.
“What do you do, where do you go to keep that student involved and engaged in math is a question facing schools all over the state,” he said.
Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, is the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee. A former teacher, he says all of the testing programs set up by the state and federal government has led to teachers “teaching to the test” and not making sure students are learning what they could be learning.
“A lot of times students don’t feel challenged because they may not be in a course that interests them or they feel really applies to them,” he said. “In today’s world kids have to see the relevance in what they are doing. I don’t think today you can tell a student, ‘you have to study this because you have to study this.’”
Langley agreed with Bowen that the state is trying to develop new classes and approaches to meet the changing needs of education. He says students are often more comfortable using technology than teachers and learn differently than the old lecture model of education.
“I think we have to look at every student individually,” he said. “Are we challenging them in the context of what it is they want to do?”
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, is the lone Democratic senator on the committee. He said it is “exciting news” that there are students who want to be challenged and want to learn more at school.
“I think that information needs to get to our schools and our parents,” he said. “We need to put the bar higher, challenge our students and make sure they succeed.”
Alfond said the state is seeking to develop “multiple pathways” for students to learn. He said studies have shown individuals learn differently and too often schools in the past have used the “one size fits all” approach that studies show does not work.
“There are schools today that are providing that individualized approach to learning,” he said. “The challenge is to have that approach in every school.”
Bowen said schools are working hard to make use of technology to provide that individualized approach. He said the Education Department is looking at ways it may help by developing some advanced courses that could be offered online to schools that cannot afford to develop an advanced math or science class for a handful of students.
“We know we have a long way to go to challenge many students that want more from school than they are getting,” Bowen said.