Education in Maine has been much in need of a lift. Most of the news over the past few years has not been promising.

At the K-12 level, the debate over school consolidation and declining state budgets has sucked most of the oxygen out of more substantive issues — such as why Maine children’s educational performance is not improving.

As for public higher education, budget concerns have been even more alarming with University of Maine campuses seemingly one-upping each other with cuts and consolidations.

So it was a breath of fresh air last week when the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education announced its “Prepare Maine: Education is Job 1” initiative.

Prepare Maine is a multi-year initiative with three goals: to better prepare children for school, to ensure more students graduate from high school ready for further education, and to increase the number of Mainers earning college degrees or occupational certificates.

MCEE is a statewide organization of leaders from business, education, and the community formed in 1991 to strengthen K-12 education in Maine.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have been a member of MCEE since its inception, although I have not been as actively involved in the past few years.

MCEE was a lead organization in the efforts to develop challenging educational standards in Maine — an effort that resulted in the Maine Learning Results, the principal guide for current K-12 curriculum development. In fact, Maine was the first state to formally ratify such a set of statewide standards.

In spite of this promising beginning, over the past decade Maine education reform has gotten bogged down in endless debates about how to measure Learning Results, how to hold students and teachers accountable and, most recently, how to consolidate Maine’s many school districts.

Somehow in all this the focus on improving student performance seems to have been lost.

Meanwhile, the process of education goes on in its timeless way.

Each year in June, parents and citizens in towns and cities all across Maine proudly witness the same colorful high school graduations that they remember from their youth.

Most of these graduates have glowing plans for further education, the military or other good employment. All things are possible on the sunny days of June graduations. However, when the ceremonies are over, the facts tell a different and more disturbing story.

According to MCEE data, of every hundred who started with that class on the podium, 21 will have dropped out.

Of every hundred who started, 28 will graduate but not go on to any further education. Of those who go on, only 19 will obtain a bachelor’s degree within six years of high school graduation. At a time when a college degree is more and more essential to obtaining a well-paying job, only 19 out of every 100 Maine high school students will achieve it — 19 out of 100.

Maine students are well behind their counterparts in other New England states in this grim statistic.

What all this suggests is that our current education system is failing many of Maine’s students. And yet it is being done in such an incremental way that we don’t realize how significant the problem is.

Whatever did happen to all those graduates, standing hopeful on many June days?

Many of them are now unemployed or underemployed, and many have left Maine. Too many will be subject to a life of marginal earnings and employment opportunities.

Is the magnitude of this beginning to sink in? Now perhaps you can understand why the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education is sounding a clarion call to all Mainers to come together and figure out what we can do to get our education system back on track.

The coalition notes that education is like a symphony — to be effective, it requires that many different kinds of players come together as one.

Just now our symphony is playing too many discordant notes. We need a new conductor with a new vision.

The coalition has enlisted some 17 partner organizations to join them in finding solutions. There are promising approaches in Maine and nationally that we can replicate.

And there is an election coming in the fall that gives us a chance to elect a new conductor.

In short, while the task is a daunting one, it is one we must squarely face. It is a task too important to fail.

We owe it to the next generation to give them the education they need to be successful: Education is Job 1.


Ron Bancroft is an independent strategy consultant based in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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