It’s fine for the Maine Department of Education to offer $3 million in incentives to encourage school districts to regionalize services, as it announced Jan. 3. This type of program could help districts save money by, for instance, helping them combine their maintenance contracts into one, or hiring a physics teacher to give lessons remotely through technology to area schools.
At least the grants will be more constructive than Gov. Paul LePage’s rhetoric about eliminating all superintendents — which, by the way, would not even save much money in the overall scheme of education in Maine.
But let’s think bigger. Where is Maine’s focus on a long-term strategy to boost student achievement, especially among lower-income students? In comparison, all else is side chatter.
Lower-income fourth graders — those eligible for free and reduced-price lunches — are only half as likely as their higher-income peers to be proficient in reading and math, according to a report by the business-led education advocacy organization Educate Maine. The achievement gap exists at all levels of schooling.
If Maine wants to prosper and grow, it needs to reduce that gap between rich and poor. And it’s not doing it. The difference in fourth-grade reading scores has not improved since 2007; it’s worsened in math. And the gap between students from lower-income families and higher-income families who go on to college actually grew between 2008 and 2014. What’s more, low-income students who make it to college are more likely to drop out.
State policymakers should focus on this.
The irony is that Maine knows how to help its schools help their students. Here’s just one example. In 2012, the Maine Legislature ordered an independent analysis of education funding that also touched on student achievement. It looked into how five schools — in Etna, Mars Hill, Portland, Phillips and Windsor — made notable improvements on New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) scores from 2010 to 2012. All together, the schools represented 1,139 students, about 62 percent of whom were economically disadvantaged.
The researchers with the California firm Picus and Associates found the schools used similar strategies, which include:
— Focusing on instructing core subjects, such as language arts, math and science.
— Adopting curriculums across the entire school that are based in research.
— Providing intensive, ongoing professional development.
— Organizing teachers into collaborative groups that continuously met to improve their instruction and figure out how to target students needing more help.
— Providing more instructional time for struggling students.
These approaches are not groundbreaking. For instance, they’re similar to those used by improving schools studied by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute. The Picus report, backed up by longitudinal studies, also touted the benefits of good preschools, which can help students with lower-income backgrounds learn more in elementary school, get better test results in middle and high school, attend college at a greater rate, and, as adults, earn higher incomes.
In fact, numerous commissions and committees and reports, over decades, have pointed out what schools could be doing to improve. The problem is there is rarely concerted, long-lasting action, because of a lack of leadership and guidance at the state level, to allow schools to do the work they want to do: push themselves to tackle their biggest challenges, to ensure their students are achieving their greatest potential.
Until someone at the state level decides to really focus on what matters most — supporting the students who are struggling the most — most other school reform proposals are chatter.