June 25, 2018
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Maine’s failing academic achievement

Abigail Curtis | BDN
Abigail Curtis | BDN
Stephen Bowen, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, displays an iPad science app during a break June 27, 2011, at the 100th Annual School Superintendents and Assistant Superintendents Conference in Augusta. "We've got to transform," he said about public education.

Maine has known for years that its academic growth has not kept pace with the nation’s. And while the state has been busy with reorganizing school districts, overhauling statewide tests and waging funding battles, it has fallen further behind even as the United States as a whole has made slow progress compared with other countries.

Maine cannot hope to keep its families here nor compete with other states, much less other countries, for businesses if it continues to make so little academic progress.

Academic growth over the last 19 years has tended to lift students at different achievement levels uniformly, according to the report from Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and Education Next. The problem is that student achievement did not rise adequately in every state, especially in comparison to other countries. Maine played a role in slowing down the growth. Between 1992 and 2011, Maine’s annual rate of growth in math, reading and science ranked second to last out of the 41 states examined, the report concluded.

Had all students across the country made the same average gains as the most improved states — Maryland, Florida, Delaware and Massachusetts — the U.S. would be at the same improvement rate as Germany and the United Kingdom.

The study should serve as one of several wake-up calls, especially since it followed a survey that found a significant number of Maine students say they are not challenged in school. The federal Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 39 percent of fourth-graders in Maine say their math work is often or always easy.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen and Gov. Paul LePage responded to the Harvard report by saying what they have been reiterating for awhile: The status quo is not working. It’s difficult to argue against Bowen’s assertion that effective teachers are the most important in-school factor in student achievement. That’s why the state must continue efforts to retain and reward its best teachers.

Bowen also is correct that more districts in Maine need to focus on rigor. Standards must be set high to encourage more learning and growth. Researchers outlined a sad statistic in their report: Only 6 percent of students in the U.S. performed at the advanced level in math — a percentage that is exceeded by 30 other countries. Many states, including Maine, must raise the aspirations of their students.

Unfortunately, state and federal governments have failed in their efforts to improve schools through high-stakes testing. Instead of raising scores, the focus on teaching to the test has often discouraged teachers and restricted studies at a time when more students should be expanding their creativity and knowledge base.

Tests are helpful, but they should not take away from the actual education of students. And they should be reviewed in context, so educators know how to adapt their curriculum accordingly and policymakers know where improvements are really needed. Progress is not just measured by standardized tests but high school graduation rates, college-going rates, behavior in the classroom, job preparedness, dropout rates of first-year college students and postsecondary remediation levels.

It also would be helpful for the state to maintain good, consistent policies, so administrators and teachers do not have to give up their focus on students to comply with each new mandate. Maintaining long-term policies requires policymakers to work together with administrators, the teachers’ union and experts to research what is already working at schools in Maine, other states and other countries.

LePage responded to the report by emphasizing that Maine has some of the highest state spending per student and that the report shows more money does not equate to better test results. He also said that giving students more choice about the schools they are able to attend — such as charter schools, more postsecondary options and virtual schools — will help students improve.

While he’s correct that more funding doesn’t necessarily correspond to higher scores, it’s important to examine the context in which the money is spent. Maine has a greater percentage of special needs students than most other states, and children often have to be bused significant distances to school.

LePage also is correct that students need multiple ways to show they can succeed in school. We would add that Maine’s education system needs state and local leaders who encourage effective, challenging instruction — with teacher and community buy-in.

The report is one of many signals for action. Not responding responsibly would mean Maine really isn’t progressing.

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