Critics may quibble about the details, but Gov. Paul LePage’s characterization of a recent Harvard study is correct: Maine’s investment in educational improvement is paying “pathetic” returns.

A close reading of the study, “ Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance,” shows the governor isn’t exaggerating. What we are doing is not working.

While many states are seeing improvement in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math tests, Maine is not.

The emphasis of the Harvard report is that the U.S. is making little progress, compared to other nations, in improving its educational results. That’s a critical concern.

But the report also provides some state-by-state comparisons which echo some of the governor’s arguments: Spending more money on education doesn’t guarantee improved results.

While Maine has increased per-pupil spending at the 10th-fastest rate in the U.S., its test-improvement scores are the second-worst.

The point isn’t necessarily that more money doesn’t help. Five states increased funding even more rapidly than Maine between 1990 and 2008 and saw corresponding increases in test scores.

Which suggests Maine is spending enough money, it just isn’t spending it wisely or at least in a way that lifts test scores.

On a “points-per-added-dollar” basis, according to the report, Maine is among the five worst-performing states.

The report does not address two questions. What are the best states doing right and what are the worst states, like Maine, doing wrong?

But it does observe that “those parts of the United States that took school reform the most seriously — Florida and North Carolina, for example — have shown stronger rates of improvement, while states that have steadfastly resisted many school reforms are among the nation’s test-score laggards.”

The study does offer some important qualifiers. First, it is easier for states that had really poor scores in 1990 to make big gains than it is for states with good scores to show similar rates of improvement.

Maine generally ranks in the top two-thirds of states in its fourth- and eighth-grade test scores. But Massachusetts has always had higher test scores and its rate of improvement is also among the highest in the country. So it is possible to be good and still get a lot better.

“The only way we will climb the ladder is to implement meaningful change such as school choice for students and families,” the governor said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Of the top three high-achieving states, Maryland does not allow private school choice, while Florida and Delaware do.

While pointing out Maine’s abysmal record of progress, the report says very little about the way forward.

The governor and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen have their ideas: school choice, access to virtual schools, better early college programs for high school students and more rigorous standards.

Maine’s teachers’ union, administrators and Democratic legislatures have often stood in the way of what the report might call “serious” reform. And, as a result, Maine has been unable to obtain “Race to the Top” funding to further improve its schools.

Gov. LePage issued his statement in letter form to the teachers’ union and two organizations representing school administrators. If they have another analysis of the Harvard results, we’d like to see it.

Absent a compelling argument to the contrary, Gov. LePage appears to be correct: “Maine students are paying the price because we have held the status quo for too long.”

If so, the status quo must go.

Sun Journal, Lewiston (July 19)