GORHAM — In these days of dwelling on fiscal cliffs and living with education spending curtailment orders, establishing practices that can maintain higher performance and efficiency in our schools is not just a benefit, it is a necessity. There are certainly models across the globe and the country to help us, but there are also models in our own state.

From my work as a researcher at the University of Southern Maine’s Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation to the continuing work of Maine’s more efficient pre K-12 public schools with which we collaborate, there is evidence that deep independent and collaborative learning are features of effective and efficient practice.

In the words of a principal from one of these more efficient Maine schools, “We’re not going out and buying something; we are building it from within.”

A collective, focused learning culture — academically, intellectually and socially — was found in the more efficient pre K-12 Maine public schools that we visited as part of a recent study commissioned by the Legislature for the Maine Education Policy Research Institute. This study identified and documented the practices of higher-performing, more efficient schools in Maine.

As a teacher in one of these higher-performing schools said, “There’s a very high expectation to do very well. We all expect the best of ourselves, and our administration expects the best — but it feels collaborative.”

The initial phase of this study used quantitative data from state standardized tests, per-pupil expenditures and community demographics to develop profiles for more than 520 Maine schools.

The process identified 90 public elementary, middle and secondary schools across our state — from Aroostook County to York County and from Franklin County to Washington County — that are both higher-performing and more efficient.

“More efficient” schools are defined as schools that exhibit higher student academic performance and a higher return on spending.

This group includes schools with total enrollment from 40 to 1,040 students, as well as populations with fewer than 3 percent to more than 63 percent of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch — effectively demonstrating that the size of a school or the economic strata of the students is not an absolute factor in higher performance.

The research team worked with 25 case study schools to conduct 1,676 classroom observations and more than 370 focus group interviews with students, parents, teachers, administrators and school support staff.

A unique feature of these more efficient schools was a sustained focus that placed students and their intellectual development at the center of all work. This focus encompassed deep learning by both students and adult professionals, allowing them to take what they learn in one situation and apply it to another.

The educators at these schools understood the value of individual intellectual work, the importance of focused collaborative work and the significance of having high standards for and high expectations of all members of the school community. Combining these features with wise investments in the use of time and school personnel created a more effective, more efficient culture of learning.

One of our goals at the policy center is to share these practices with other school districts, communities and education leaders so they may become more common throughout the state and beyond.

After presenting the findings of the “More Efficient Public Schools in Maine” study to the Maine Legislature, director David Silvernail and our research team have been discussing these findings with teachers, administrators, and board members from school districts throughout Maine and New England.

We also work with educators, community leaders and policy makers using a set of “Conversation Tools” developed as a part of this study to guide the discussions of the ongoing work of improving our schools and education systems.

An equally important aspect of our role here in the policy center is that, as researchers, we are able to step back from national fiscal cliffs and local curtailments to see what is happening here in our state with relation to the world beyond.

This perspective allows us to understand that some of the best qualities of our Maine spirit — such as the practice in these more efficient schools collectively “building it from within” — make more efficient Maine schools a model not only for each other but also for schools and education systems across our nation and beyond.

Erika Stump is a research associate at the University of Southern Maine’s Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation.

– Special to the Press Herald