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Public health, not Common Core, is the only effective solution for educational challenges

Kelley Watson, a preschool teacher at Penquis Head Start in Bangor reads a book to children in her class. Penquis has several ways of preparing children for kindergarden in Maine.
Kelley Watson, a preschool teacher at Penquis Head Start in Bangor reads a book to children in her class. Penquis has several ways of preparing children for kindergarden in Maine. Buy Photo
Posted Aug. 25, 2014, at 3:04 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 25, 2014, at 3:23 p.m.

Maine’s efforts to assure a quality education for all children fall far short of the mark. We are embarked on another “cure of the day” with Common Core State Standards. The shortcomings of our educational system won’t be solved by adopting new standards.

In my view, we have three major problems to overcome:

— Our analysis of the problem is incomplete. A poor understanding of the problem results in partial and ineffective solutions.

— Maine is losing many millions of dollars in MaineCare support for the educational system.

— We have failed to develop an integrated, community-level response to the challenges keeping many students from successful outcomes. Our children’s services system is fractured, duplicative, often dysfunctional and not focused on educational success.

Most of us agree that doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result each time is the best definition of stupidity. How many more times will we rely on new standards and new “initiatives” to assure success for the student?

I am utterly dismayed we do not use the data available to us from all sources — regarding education, health care, mental health, public health and more — in order to fully understand the educational challenges facing our children are not limited to academic deficits. The problem goes beyond ineffective teaching and low standards. The majority of our economically challenged third graders fail to read proficiently for reasons other than poor teaching.

Previous articles and letters have made the point that many of our high school, community college and university graduates are not prepared to work. It’s not because they lack academic skills (in many cases they do!), but because they lack the necessary workplace attitudes and behavior. These gaps are also directly related to the high dropout rate from community colleges and universities and, for many, are directly related to the challenges they brought to kindergarten.

The success of programs like Jobs for Maine’s Graduates offer proof that social and emotional issues play a major role in student success or failure. JMG is not primarily an educational program. Its emphasis on social, emotional and leadership success produce results proved by the evidence of data. Six years after completing the program, JMG graduates, when compared with all other 22- to 24-year-olds, earned 14 percent more.

Better teachers and greater accountability will not have a major impact on children unprepared to learn, whose early years include poverty, abuse, violence and unprepared parents. We now know through medical research toxic environments damage developing brains in exactly the area they need most to learn — short-term memory.

If we ever truly use the data to develop a real analysis of the problem, I believe we will come to understand the only effective solution to our problem is in a public health approach. Public health has taught us solutions to almost overwhelming problems come from community-level analysis and problem-solving. In addition to accurate problem analysis, it also means identifying all potentially available resources — federal, state, local and private — and bringing them to bear in a coordinated, goal-directed fashion.

This systemic approach must be supported by continuous quality improvement. The Maine Quality Counts program offers a national model called Aligning Forces for Quality that is adaptable to education. It offers a collaborative model that recognizes quality improvement requires many partners, particularly practitioners. It is a state, local and private collaboration in keeping with our recommendation for a public health approach.

Our leaders clearly do not get it. They have:

— Slashed state funding for early childhood services.

— Practically eliminated MaineCare funding for education, leaving local towns to make up the difference.

— Dramatically cut health care coverage for parents;

— Transferred an increasingly large share of education funding to the property tax.

— Failed to make education “Job One” for our limited children’s services programs.

— Denigrated the very people we depend on to make education work: our teachers.

Real solutions involve a recognition that schools alone will continue to fail our most challenged students. Our at-risk students do not have time for politicians and bureaucrats to pass the buck and play the blame game.

A public health approach to solving the problem is not an option, but a necessity. We can’t allow 40 more years of “cure of the day” solutions. A sweeping reorganization of our child resources under a unifying goal of educational success, backed by a real quality improvement system, must happen now.

Or we could tune up the fiddles and continue to play while Rome burns.

Dean Crocker is the retired president and CEO of the Maine Children’s Alliance and state ombudsman for child welfare services.

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