AUGUSTA — Maine’s elementary and secondary schools are some of the best in the country, but that’s not good enough when competing in a global economy.

That was among the messages Friday from Yellow Light Breen, a Bangor Savings Bank executive and board member of Educate Maine, a business-led nonprofit organization. Breen spoke during a panel discussion at the University of Maine at Augusta.

Breen also said that Maine’s higher education achievement does not stack up, and that Maine has the lowest percentage of adults with a college degree of any New England state.

Even so, Breen and other panel members were optimistic. They advocated for standards-based education — a sweeping education reform that Maine public schools may soon have to adopt — greater emphasis on math and science, and the insights of a new study into Maine’s most efficient schools.

Breen talked about the recent improvements in achievement at Searsport District High School and Regional School Unit 82 in Jackman, both of which have adopted standards-based education, a model that promotes students only when they can show they understand specific topics and eventually groups students by what they know, not by age-based grade levels.

Breen recently testified in support of L.D. 1422, a bill in the Legislature that would mandate a standards-based diploma by 2017. Current law requires students to spend four years in high school to earn a credit-based diploma.

In a standards-based system, “we don’t care how much seat time you had, we don’t care how many courses you took, we care about what you know and what you can do,” Breen said during the panel discussion.

Schools need structural change, Breen said, because smaller reforms, such as changing teaching curriculum, have not worked.

Maranacook Community High School business teacher Patricia Morris said her district’s middle school, Maranacook Community Middle in Readfield, uses some of the features of standards-based education, such as students working in multi-age groups.

But parents are not happy with the middle school, Morris said.

“What they’re asking for is a more traditional approach,” she said. “So, that’s a barrier to the change I believe we do need.”

Whatever reforms Maine adopts for its schools, Morris said teachers must be involved in making the decisions.

Erika Stump, an education research assistant at the University of Southern Maine, said she and other researchers found that Maine’s most efficient schools — ones that have higher than average achievement rates but spend less money than other districts — have rigorous curriculum and high standards for their students.

They also focus on building intellectualism in their students and teaching them to be learners, rather than just teaching material, Stump said.

In response to a question from the audience, Stump said that standards-based transcripts should not be a problem for students applying to college, contrary to many parents’ worries.

Based on her work in the admissions office of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Stump said traditional letter grades might not tell colleges much.

“Many college admissions programs are enthusiastic about receiving more information about what it is the student is doing and not assuming that an A is an A is an A,” she said. “Many standards-based schools explain the standard, and that’s part of the transcript.

“That’s easier for admissions officers to deal with than a numerical grade that may or may not be rigorous.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]

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