Based on a recent Harvard study, Gov. Paul LePage would have us believe that the schools of Maine are failing miserably and that the solution is as easy as ABC. It is not.
Of the tests that the Harvard researchers used, only one of them — the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP — tracked student achievement over 20 years. Maine scores on NAEP have always been, and continue to be, above the national average. Since 1998, math testing in grades 4 and 8 has shown 12- and 10-point gains and a substantial increase in the percentage of students scoring at or above the basic level.
Reading results are not as positive, showing a 3- to 5-point decline in scores and passing rates. Maine ranks in the top ten in math achievement and in the top 15 in reading. These rankings are not as high as they were previously and warrant concern, but in no way do they merit a wholesale condemnation of Maine schools. Other factors are at work.
Children need to be well fed and well rested in order to sustain attention in school. Yet, one in four Maine children 16 years of age and under live in a “food insecure” home, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Children need quality early care and education in order to be ready for kindergarten. Yet, 58 percent of Maine children do not have access to preschool.
Children need to live in income-secure families in order to limit the hours they work, have time to complete homework and be able to access learning resources. Yet, one in three children live in homes where there is no adult who holds a full-time job. And the percentage of students who are eligible for federally subsidized lunch has increased in the last two decades from 32 percent to 45 percent.
Poverty matters. Students who are eligible for lunch subsidies have average reading and math scores that are 18-21 points lower than those who do not qualify. Among fourth graders, only 57 percent of eligible students achieved at the basic level or above, while 81 percent of their noneligible peers met that standard.
Other sources show a similar connection between family income and academic outcomes. Average SAT scores for Maine eleventh graders increase as family income increases, as does enrollment in honors classes, rank in class, high school graduation and college attendance and completion.
This is not to say that schools can’t do anything to counter the effects of poverty on learning. They just can’t do everything. That is why LePage’s proposals are not sufficient. He has suggested focusing on “accountability” to measure school performance, “best practice” to look to other states for solutions and “choice” to place faith in open enrollment options.
An alternative, and more realistic, ABC might look like this:
Accountability would mean creating a system that provides all children with the basic necessities and resources they need to be school-ready and to meet standards for learning and citizenship. Establishing universal, public preschool and providing extensive nutrition programs in schools are first steps. The measures of school performance that the governor proposes are indeed important, but they are useful for documenting outcome gains — not for producing them.
Best practices would mean looking at the wealth of research about effective teaching and providing time and opportunity for teachers to continue to learn. The governor suggests we look to New Jersey and Florida as models. Finland, the highest-ranked nation in international comparisons and with a population similar to ours, is a more appropriate choice. There, teacher preparation programs are competitive in admissions and rigorous in academic and pedagogical content, standardized tests are nonexistent and teachers, who are 100 percent unionized, are trusted to know their students and how to diagnose and met their needs.
Choice would mean that teachers would choose how to design learning options. By shaping instruction according to student needs and interests and not according to “one-size-fits-all” scripted programs or timelines, teachers could help more students achieve proficiency. While open enrollment options and charter schools are appealing at face value, they have produced mixed results nationally and have not proved to be more effective than public schools.
Woody Guthrie once said, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” What the governor proposes is indeed clear and simple. What better time than now to add some complexity to the mix and forge policies that consider the multiple forces that affect the educational success and well-being of our children?
Lynne Miller is professor of educational leadership at the University of Southern Maine, where she teaches courses in research and teaching practice. She is a member of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.