December 12, 2013 · Bangor Daily News

Maine lagging behind other New England states in education, reforms needed, new coalition study says

A coalition of business leaders and educators released a report Thursday morning showing Maine lags behind other New England states in terms of preschool enrollment, college graduation and reading and math proficiencies, among other things.

Educate Maine, an organization led by business executives and school administrators across a range of grade levels, issued its inaugural Education Indicators for Maine report Thursday at a news conference at Casco Bay High School in Portland.

The study found that Maine ranks behind the New England average in several of the group’s key indicators spanning multiple student ages, from prekindergarten to adulthood. The report set a goal of ensuring that 50 percent of all Mainers have a college degree, certificate or industry credential by 2023 — a benchmark which, if reached, would put the state at what the New England average is expected to be at that time.

Currently, between 37 percent and 39 percent of Mainers have one of those credentials.

In order to hit that 2023 goal, Educate Maine representatives said Thursday that the state must invest more in all levels of education, and schools across Maine must pursue proficiency-based graduation models.

“It is no longer OK that we move kids through grade levels because of their ages or seat time,” said Allyn Hutton, superintendent of schools in Kittery and an Educate Maine board member. Hutton said in Kittery, high school freshman science programs are piloting a proficiency-based model now, with plans to expand it to the entire ninth-grade curriculum next year.

In a proficiency-based model, students advance to the next grade level by showing they understand the concepts they’re supposed to have learned to move up, rather than by obtaining a minimum letter grade or age.

Although 85 percent of Maine students graduate high school, the Educate Maine study suggests, only 48 percent of high school juniors in the state are proficient in reading and math.

“What does that diploma mean if they’ve graduated high school, but don’t have proficiency in core subjects?” posed Ronald Cantor, president of Southern Maine Community College, during the Thursday morning news conference. “It means [students] can go to college, but they can’t do college work.”

As a result, he said, post-secondary institutions in the state must spend more on remedial classes to help them catch up, or the students flunk out and are burdened by heavy loan debts with no degree to show for it.

“Maine has more than 200,000 adults with some college, but no college degree,” said Susan Hunter, vice chancellor of academic affairs for the University of Maine system.

Those shortcomings can often be traced to the younger grades, Educate Maine representatives said Thursday, and can ultimately affect Mainers as they grow up and struggle to find work.

Thursday’s report found that 43 percent of Maine 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in prekindergarten, compared with a New England average of 56 percent. In fourth grade reading, as determined by scores on standardized National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, 32 percent of Maine students are proficient, while 41 percent are proficient across the rest of New England.

Similarly in math, 45 percent of Maine fourth graders are proficient compared with 51 percent as the New England average. Using the same tests in eighth grade, 39 percent of Maine students scored as proficient in each math and reading, while the New England averages were 42 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

“Third graders not reading to proficiency are four times less likely to graduate high school than their proficient classmates,” Hutton said.

And when they don’t graduate high school — or make it through some form of postsecondary education or training — the Maine business community suffers, said Maine State Chamber of Commerce President Dana Connors.

“Business leaders from all around the state tell us the No. 1 thing determining whether they can expand or grow in Maine is the presence of a work-ready workforce,” Connors said.

“[In terms of] the number of Mainers with postsecondary degrees or credentials, Maine ranks lower than all of its New England neighbors and just barely above the U.S. average,” said Michael Dubyak, CEO of South Portland-based WEX Inc., and chairman of Educate Maine. “For Maine’s future and its future economic prosperity, we must have a better educated workforce.”

Connors said the collection of diverse stakeholders that makes up Educate Maine — including executives of such business heavyweights as Bath Iron Works and Cianbro — will help exert significant lobbying power when education reform and funding are on the table in Augusta.

“Educate Maine believes in a collective action,” agreed Dubyak. “The idea that diverse groups and stakeholders agree on one goal and work collectively to achieve this goal. We believe that we have put together 10 indicators that business leaders, elected officials, community leaders and educators can get behind, and we can all work together collectively to strengthen Maine’s education pipeline.”

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