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Camden Conference - Education

One of the themes of this year’s Camden Conference was “Education:  Does America have what it takes in the 21st Century.”  Professor Robert Schwartz of Harvard University was the keynoter on education.  Professor Schwartz, who has had several opportunities to assess comparative education systems in work with the OECD, offered a sobering assessment of the current state of US education. In sum, Professor Schwartz described a K-12 system that has drifted into mediocre performance, compared to other developed countries- most discouraging was US high school students coming 31st out of the 32 developed countries in Math in the latest OECD assessments.


 Commenting on current national policy, Schwartz endorsed the Obama Administration’s push for a set of national standards taking shape in a cooperative effort called the Common Core.  He was less enamored of efforts encouraging the development of Charter Schools, and he was disdainful of the Administration’s attempts to intervene in failing schools.


Professor Schwartz felt the U.S. could learn from Finland’s approach to K-12 education.  Finnish students perform near the top of OECD assessments – a fact that Professor Schwartz attributes principally to the Finns’ ability to attract the best and brightest to teaching and then to do a rigorous job of developing these students into excellent teachers.  This is in contrast to the US, where according to a national study in 2010, we recruit most of our teachers from the bottom third of their high school class.


In addition to the Finnish example, Professor Schwartz noted that Canada has had some success in improving its scores by offering extra resources to those schools with disappointing results. Left unsaid was the point that we in the US have lavished lots of resources in our schools (the US spends more per pupil than only tiny Luxembourg) with less encouraging results.  Maine is certainly a case in point.  In the mid-80’s Maine’s 4th and 8th graders consistently led the nation in the well-regarded NAEP (National Assessments of Education Progress).  Since that time, Maine’s spending on K-12 education doubled, a rate well above the national average, while Maine’s NAEP test results have slipped below top ten status.


Why do we have such mediocre results with so much expense? Professor Schwartz had little more to suggest – although he did not think that the teachers’ unions should be singled out for impeding progress. This is an area where I would take issue with the good professor, having seen the teacher’s unions in Maine and across the country oppose most reform initiatives over the past twenty years.


Is the teachers’ union the sole reason for Maine’s or the nation’s disappointing education performance?  Certainly not, there are several factors that play a part.  In addition to Union inflexibility, the U.S. has a much more diverse, decentralized system than in most high performing countries like Finland or South Korea. From a governance perspective, local control is part of a U.S. tradition that too often leads to weak leadership in schools and to uneven oversight from too many school boards. 


In addition, while most states have developed standards, the standards vary in quality and in the consistency with which they are applied. Moreover, U.S. teachers have a more difficult task connecting with today’s student, whose twitter-induced attention span demands constant stimulation.  Finally, there is the issue of parents and their role.  Too few parents seem to be taking a strong role in encouraging their kids and in advocating for better overall results. Many seem complacent about the schools their children attend and not aware of the overall state and national trends in student results.


Unfortunately, the Camden Conference format did not allow for a full discussion of what might be done to address these issues and significantly improve education here in Maine and across the country.  There are approaches that hold promise.  Perhaps this is a topic worthy of the sole focus of a future conference.