Maine’s schools are shrinking, their academic performance hasn’t improved substantially in years even as it has in other states, and an achievement gap persists between low-income students and their higher-income peers.
There are pressing challenges in Maine’s education system: Schools are educating an increasingly low-income student body, many rural schools that have seen their enrollment drop over the years are struggling to pay for a decent education for the students who remain, and Maine schools often have trouble recruiting strong school leaders who can guide their improvement.
The BDN’s Maine Focus team recently dove into these trends, examining what is holding back Maine students from realizing their full potential and holding up examples of promising efforts to address many of these challenges head on.
Here are some takeaways from the series that resulted, called Your School.
Direct funding to low-income schools, and spend the money on proven strategies. Family income is a persistent, dividing line in education.
Students who come from low-income families tend to start school already lagging their higher-income peers, and the gap in academic achievement continues throughout school. Later on, lower-income students are less likely to graduate from high school, enroll in college and stay enrolled, and ultimately graduate with a post-secondary degree.
While researchers and policymakers have debated for years whether more money will fix public education in the U.S., a growing body of recent research has shown that targeting more money to low-income students makes a difference, helping to close those stubborn achievement gaps and improving the outlook for poor students later in life.
Over the years, Maine’s school funding policies have tended to provide roughly equal treatment for all students, whether wealthy or poor. But because low-income students and their higher-income peers have different starting points, equal treatment doesn’t mean all students have an equal shot at meeting the state’s academic expectations. What recent school spending studies suggest is that Maine could level the playing field by actually spending more on its poorer students than others — especially if the extra money goes toward proven strategies to help low-income students.
Policymakers in Maine took a number of steps in that direction last year as part of the two-year state budget that took effect last July. They allocated more money for low-income students in the school funding formula, and the state will require that schools spend part of the sum on extended learning programs, such as tutoring and after-school programs, specifically to help low-income students.
The debate over school funding is a debate that won’t go away. As it continues, policymakers might consider allocating more resources to districts with high numbers of low-income students, and ensuring that schools spend the money specifically for those students’ benefit — not simply as an addition to the general budget.
Cultivate strong school leaders. Principals are second only to teachers in terms of how much they can influence students’ school performance, particularly for those students living in poverty. Yet principals are largely overlooked for their ability to improve student achievement. And Maine schools have found it difficult to retain principals long enough for their work to matter.
Maine doesn’t have a shortage of people qualified to work as principals. It’s that those with the credentials aren’t stepping up to apply for the open positions. Those who are applying tend to have less experience. And once they’ve started, about half of Maine principals leave before they’ve put in five years — which is the average amount of time it takes for a school leader to fully apply new practices to improve staff and student performance.
Given the high stakes for student learning, the leadership challenge is one that schools can’t ignore. But the landscape in Maine for cultivating new school leaders and supporting those who are already in leadership positions is a fractured one.
There’s no requirement in Maine that new principals have mentors they can approach with questions about the job or with whom they can work through challenging situations. The state is moving toward such a requirement for new teachers but has resisted such a move for principals.
As for concerted efforts to cultivate future leaders, they vary from district to district — and capacity is limited in smaller districts. The Bangor School Department began its Bangor Educational Leadership Academy in the fall of 2016. The academy allows participating staff members to take the coursework needed to earn school leadership credentials through the University of Maine. The participants also receive mentoring from current administrators, and they’re required to conduct their own research and propose solutions to ongoing school department challenges.
Similar to legislation requiring mentoring for principals and assistant principals, legislative efforts in recent years to help school districts create regional leadership academies have succumbed to vetoes from Gov. Paul LePage.