In Maine, Postsecondary Success Starts Before College

NEJHE presents exclusive articles by New England’s governors on higher education in their states …
Last spring, 83% of Maine public high school students who began high school four years earlier received a diploma.

About 65% of those graduates likely enrolled in some form of postsecondary education—at a public university, private institution, community college or elsewhere.

A 2008 report from the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Culture Affairs of the Maine Legislature indicates a quarter of those who enrolled at a public university in Maine required a remedial course to catch them up to the level where they should have been when they completed high school.

Of those who began a degree program at Maine’s seven community colleges, 37% needed remedial courses in subjects like math, reading and writing.

Within six years, only 48% of those who started work on a University of Maine System bachelor’s degree in the fall of 2010 will have earned it. Of those who started work on an associate degree at that time, just 26% will have completed it within three years.

What do these numbers tell us?

Regardless of how hard we’ve tried and how much money we’ve spent, our public schools simply haven’t managed to equip many of our students with the skills they need to succeed in college.

The result?

Studies show, by 2018, nearly 60% of jobs in Maine will require at least some amount of college education. If we can’t get more of our students to complete high school and earn degrees, we won’t have the workforce required to meet the needs of a 21st-century technology- and knowledge-driven economy.

If we don’t have the educated workforce we need, our hopes of creating high-quality jobs in Maine and enticing them to come here will be greatly diminished.

For many of our residents, that means the higher wages and healthier lifestyles that come with higher-skill jobs will be out of reach.

There’s no simple solution to this dilemma, but much of it depends on reforming our public education system so we can be sure the students we’re graduating are ready not only to enter college, but to succeed in college.

Part of the problem is that, as it’s designed, our public education system favors essentially one learning style—one that involves sitting in a classroom and absorbing information from lectures and books. That’s a format that doesn’t work well for the majority of students.

As a result, many of our students—especially boys—start losing interest in school at a young age. If they lose interest, they’re unlikely to engage with course materials, discover knowledge on their own and challenge themselves to go above and beyond the bare minimum requirements.

If we’re not engaging students, but still promoting them from grade level to grade level, they’re graduating from high school unprepared for the rigors of college coursework. If they even enroll in college, it’s those students who are most likely to need remediation, and most likely to drop out before they earn a degree.

What we need in Maine is an education system that holds students to rigorous standards, encourages students to take charge of their own learning and has flexibility and relevance at its core.

In other words, our education system needs to offer all students—especially those at-risk of falling behind—more opportunities to be successful in school.

We in Maine took an early step toward that goal earlier this spring by fully adopting the Common Core state standards. Rigorous standards for all of our students are at the crux of our reform efforts. If we have high expectations for our students, they’ll meet them.

What’s not spelled out by these world-class standards is how our students meet them. That’s the province of our teachers, administrators and school boards. It should also be up to the students themselves.

Our students need more power to decide on the environment in which they’ll learn and attend school. This choice takes a few different forms:

  • More of our public schools need to embrace a standards-based environment, in which students advance to the next level only once they’ve mastered what’s expected of them at the previous level. In this environment, students determine how they learn what they need to learn and how they demonstrate proficiency. The teacher becomes a facilitator who helps her students become independent learners and promotes them only once they’ve proven worthy of promotion. A handful of Maine schools have become early adopters of this standards-based format, and are confident it will make the high school diplomas they award more meaningful. Other Maine schools can learn from their experiences. My Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen is working to share this model with more schools throughout the state.
  • High school students need to be able to transfer seamlessly among different learning environments and earn credit from all of them. Depending on their needs and interests, students should be able to earn credit through a mix of online classes, adult education classes, community college and university courses, independent projects and internships.
  • More of our students need to be able to enroll in career and technical education courses at our vocational schools. They need to be able to enroll there full-time, and before they reach their junior year in high school. Our vocational schools promote hands-on learning that many students find more relevant than the traditional academic atmosphere. Many of our career and technical education students find the vocational environment brings to life the lessons they learn in math, science and other courses.
  • Our students also need another option: the opportunity to enroll at a charter school where a committed operator is innovating—and being held accountable—to find the right way to reach students who aren’t succeeding in the traditional setting. Maine is one of 10 states that don’t allow charter schools, but that’s something we expect to change in the coming weeks.

Our institutions of higher education in Maine would do well to learn some lessons from the innovations we’re planning for our K-12 system.

Just as we expect our public schools and teachers to meet the needs and learning styles of all students, our colleges and universities have the same obligation.

They need to hire professors who care about teaching. They need to be held accountable for their outcomes.

I urge those in charge of both our K-12 and postsecondary systems of education to get to work on improving. The success of one system depends on the other. And the success of our most important asset—our students—depends on them both.

Paul R. LePage is serving his first term as Maine’s governor.


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