Many of us — students, parents and teachers alike — are nervous as we head back to school this fall, even though Maine has a tradition of quality, community-supported schools. Mainers have lots to celebrate and to safeguard.
Maine students are world-class achievers. In 2013, Maine students ranked 9th in the world in eighth-grade science achievement and 13th in math, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.
The Maine School of Science and Mathematics is one of the best schools in the United States. U.S. News & World Report ranks the school 14th in the United States for top performing high schools.
Maine provides laptops to all students in the seventh and eighth grades. The Maine Learning Technology Initiative — the first statewide program of its kind anywhere in the U.S. — began in 2001. The program ensures that all children, whether their family is rich or poor or in between, have a chance to become a skilled user of some of the technologies workers need to succeed in today’s marketplace.
Maine is working to overcome the effects of poverty on learning. Maine has many schools that are achieving academic success at rates better than would be predicted by the demographic profile of their students and the size of their school budgets. University of Southern Maine researcher David Silvernail and colleagues have identified these as highly effective and efficient schools. On national data of children’s well-being from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Maine ranks 14th in education, but only 29th in economic well-being.
To continue this success, we have to work together to help ensure every child has access to quality education and healthy living situations. If Mainers want to see real progress in education, it is time to put politics aside and learn from other school systems that have done a better job reducing the differences in achievement between students growing up in poverty and students with privilege.
Consider the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, a well-respected national test of student achievement that is used to measure academic performance across the country. The gap in educational performance on the NAEP between Maine students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and students who don’t qualify is a whopping 23 points. If Maine could get every student in the state to score as well as students who do not qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, Maine would rate No. 2 in the nation for student achievement.
Resilient youth — those who achieve at high levels despite coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds — are able to succeed despite obstacles and hardships. Maine needs a resilient state education system. International education researchers have measured the extent to which a nation can lift students growing up in the poorest quartile of the population to reach the top quartile of academic achievement. In the United States fewer than 30 percent of disadvantaged students are considered resilient, in contrast to nearly 80 percent in the highest-achieving nations. These nations commit to the potential of their human capital for economic success and quality of life.
Here is a tragic fact about Maine’s schools: currently, Maine funds public schools regressively — schools are penalized for receiving federal funds designated for high-need students. This results in per-pupil funding variations that are as much as 4 to 1. Some communities spend $7,346.43 per year per pupil, others spend as much as $30,486.57. To be sure, there are transportation and economy-of-scale factors. However, if Mainers want to see a strong Maine in the decades to come, more resources need to be invested in the communities that need them most.
Maine schools, families, teachers and students do well given the challenges of a relatively poor and mostly rural state. But the state funding system is not helping. Strong communities and healthy, educated children are the responsibility of everyone.
Flynn Ross is an associate professor of teacher education at the University of Southern Maine. Ross is a member of the Maine chapter of the national 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.