Maine Schools in Focus: To Boost Job and College Readiness, Put Resources Where They Can Help Most

 

Stevens Hall

Editor: Gordon Donaldson


In September, Educate Maine, a “business-led education advocacy organization” and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce issued a policy brief, “College and Career Readiness for Maine.” The brief calls for “full, statewide implementation of the college and career readiness strategies outlined” in its pages. And it goes on to stress that the recommended seven strategies and 15 actions be applied particularly to Maine students from low-income families, noting that they are less likely to be proficient in math and reading, to graduate from high school, or to go on to college.

This laudable (and very accessible) document includes among the seven strategies “investing in early childhood education;” “adopting student-centered learning practices;” “raising aspirations to pursue some form of postsecondary education;” and “funding targeted needs.” It builds on what is now a 30-year effort to boost achievement and college attendance. (Our modern school reform era began in 1984 with the publication of A Nation at Risk and Maine’s legislative, professional, and business-led efforts that followed.) Past efforts have borne some fruit: the number of 18 to 24 years olds in Maine who were enrolled in or had completed college has grown from 40 percent in 2004 to 50 percent in 2014 (Maine Kids Count, 2015); more young people (16 to 24) are participating in the labor force in 2014 than in previous years (Center for Workforce Research and Information, 2016).

These statewide signs of progress, however, disguise regional differences. If the Educate Maine/Chamber of Commerce initiative is to have any traction, we all must recognize that the challenge of boosting workforce and college readiness is distinctly steeper in counties facing higher rates of poverty and darker economic futures. To wit: Washington, Somerset, and Piscataquis Counties experienced both the highest rates of child poverty (22.4 to 27.7 percent of children) and of unemployment (over 7.5 percent) in 2014. Aroostook, Franklin, Oxford, and Waldo were not far behind (Maine Kids Count, 2015).

What’s most remarkable about these high-need regions is their rurality and their location in the state’s interior. The schools in these regions struggle to fully educate children who are growing up in poverty, surrounded by fewer work opportunities that promise a full and satisfying future. They are, by and large, smaller schools that, while they offer superb opportunities for personalized and “student-centered” learning practices, employ teachers and administrators who must wear many hats and face difficulties hiring specialists. They are required by state and federal law to meet the same bureaucratic and institutional requirements as large, fully-staffed school units. Their communities draw from significantly shallower tax bases, including commercial enterprises, than do those in other counties.

What might make this new effort succeed beyond its predecessors? One overarching suggestion: Focus more energies on workforce participation in addition to college attendance. Why? Because our high schools, our colleges, and resources such as the MELMAC Education Foundation and the Finance Authority of Maine amply cover the college-going option. And because, for many low-income families and adolescents, investing hard-won dollars in postsecondary education is an extraordinary risk. Many leave high school not immediately eager to do “more school;” enrollment in our excellent public college and university system can happen at any time they’re ready and see a reason to do so.

What’s far more difficult to crack is the challenge of preparing kids for a workforce that may be unfamiliar to them and their parents, is constantly changing, and that may not exist at all within an easy drive of their high schools. Here are some possibilities:

  1. Target these efforts where they are most needed. Heed Action Step 14, calling for greater equity. Don’t doom the effort to failure by insisting that it be “a state wide and an inch deep.”
  2. Foster partnerships between schools and business-development consortia. Our secondary career and technical education schools have done this since their inception in the 1970s. The Educate Maine initiative requires that all schools be more engaged in such partnerships so that teaching practices and curriculum can benefit from knowledge about emerging workforce requirements. (High school “bridge” programs are proving successful in this regard.)
  3. Stress in schools the “soft proficiencies,” not just the “hard” or “academic” ones. Kids need to learn to follow directions, to work well in teams, to bring a positive attitude to school and to work, and to address disappointment and conflict constructively. Business owners continue to say they’d rather have “a good worker” who’s ready to learn than someone who’s rank card shows “all above proficiency” ratings.
  4. Invest in many more school-to-work forms of learning, in internships, and in hands-on learning that links academic skills to forms of work (Action Steps 3 and 4). Our kids don’t need to “learn about” the world of work; they need to “work in” the world of work. This might well require extending resources to high-needs areas beyond those available from Jobs for Maine’s Future and that integrate more fully with classroom teachers’ efforts to teach proficiencies.
  5. Invite and support schools in high-needs areas to think outside the box of “school as usual” (Action Step 15). Schools, like businesses, need development funds to create and sustain innovation. Support should include planning, professional development, and implementation coaching. Taking a page from Maine’s charter schools, innovative schooling in high-needs areas should be freed from policies and regulations that hinder what works for kids.

The brief’s “Action Steps” point mainly to changes in schooling. To have long-term benefits, however, they must include specific initiatives on two parallel and interacting tracks, one educational and the other economic. One must target, as the brief does, educational interventions in the schools of these regions. But the other must target specific efforts to stimulate economic development and job growth in these same regions. Our most unlikely-to-succeed students are children of failed economies; if they are to aspire to succeed, they must have avenues close at hand to learn the skills to do so.

Sources: Educate Maine/Maine Chamber of Commerce (2016). “College and Career Readiness for Maine.” mainestatechamber.org; Center for Workforce Research and Information (www1.maine.gov/labor/cwri/); Maine Kids Count: 2015-16 (mainechildrensalliance.org).

 

Maine Schools in Focus is intended to share information that stimulates thinking, planning, and action to fulfill the mission of Maine’s preK-12 schools. Submissions must present ideas and data relevant to schooling in Maine and pose questions and suggest avenues for policy and action. They must be limited to 750 words.

Contact: Gordon Donaldson at schoolhouse@maine.edu.