Maine’s efforts to ensure a quality education for all children fall far short of the mark. We are embarked on another “cure of the day” with Common Core Standards.

I hope to make three points clear:

• Our analysis of the problem is incomplete. A poor understanding of the problem results in partial and/or ineffective solutions.

• Maine is losing many millions of dollars in MaineCare support for the educational system.

• We have failed to develop an integrated, community-level response to the challenges keeping many students from successful outcomes. Our children’s services system is fractured, duplicative, often dysfunctional and not focused on educational success.

Most of us agree that it is ludicrous to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result each time. How many more times will we rely on new standards and new “initiatives” to ensure success for the student?

I am utterly dismayed that we do not use the data available to us from all sources (education, health care, mental health, public health, etc.) in order to more fully understand that the educational challenges of our children are not limited to academic deficits. The problem goes beyond ineffective teaching and low standards. The majority of our economically challenged third-graders fail to read proficiently for reasons other than poor teaching.

Previous articles and letters have made the point that many of our high school, community college and university graduates are not prepared to work. Not because they lack academic skills (although in many cases they do), but because they lack the attitudes and workplace behavior that is necessary. These gaps are also directly related to the high dropout rate from community colleges and universities, and for many, are directly related to the challenges they brought to kindergarten.

The success of programs such as Jobs for Maine’s Graduates offer proof that social/emotional issues play a major role in student success or failure. Jobs for Maine’s Graduates is not primarily an educational program. Its emphasis on social, emotional and leadership success produce results proved by the evidence of data. When compared to all other 22- to 24-year-olds, Jobs for Maine’s Graduates earned $117 per month more.

Better teachers and greater accountability will not have a major impact on children who aren’t prepared to learn; whose early years include poverty, abuse, violence and unprepared parents. We now know through medical research that toxic environments damage developing brains in exactly the area they need most to learn — short-term memory.

When (if?) we ever truly use the data to develop a real analysis of the problem, I believe we will come to understand that the only effective solution to our problem is in a public health approach.

Public health has taught us that solutions to almost overwhelming problems come from community-level analysis and problem solving. In addition to accurate problem analysis, it also means identifying all of the potentially available resources: federal, state, local and private, and bringing them to bear in a coordinated goal-directed fashion.

This systemic approach must be supported by continuous quality improvement. The Maine Quality Counts program offers a national model called Aligning Forces for Quality, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation designed to help communities across the country lift the quality of health care within their geographic region. This program is adaptable to education. It offers a collaborative model that recognizes quality improvement must involve many partners; particularly practitioners. It is a state, local and private collaboration in keeping with our recommendation for a public health approach.

Our leaders clearly do not get it. They have:

• Slashed state funding for early childhood services.

• Practically eliminated MaineCare funding for education, leaving municipalities to make up the difference.

•. Dramatically cut health care coverage for parents.

• Transferred an increasingly large share of education funding to the property tax.

• Failed to make education Job 1 for our limited children’s services programs.

• Denigrated the very people we depend on to make education work: our teachers.

Real solutions mean recognition that schools alone will continue to fail our most challenged students. Our at-risk students do not have time for politicians and bureaucrats to pass the buck and play the blame game. A public health approach is not an option. It is a necessity. Forty more years of cure-of-the-day solutions cannot be allowed. Sweeping re-organization of our child resources under a unifying goal of educational success, backed by a real quality improvement system, must happen now.

Or we could tune up the fiddles and continue to play while Rome burns.

Dean Crocker, of Manchester, is a longtime advocate for children. He is ombudsman with Child Welfare Services and former president and CEO of the Maine Children’s Alliance.

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