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USM Study: One in Four Maine Schools Surveyed Are Higher Performing

PORTLAND- Although a recent Harvard study found that Maine ranked next to last in improving student performance over the last two decades, some of Maine’s schools have defied these odds and have consistently produced higher student performance while wisely investing taxpayers’ dollars. This is just one of the major findings from the new University of Southern Maine study, “More Efficient Public Schools in Maine: Learning Communities Building the Foundation of Intellectual Work.”   

With funding from the Maine Legislature and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, researchers at the Maine Education Policy Research Institute (MEPRI) in the USM’s Center for Education Policy, Applied Research, and Evaluation (CEPARE) conducted extensive reviews of more than 500 public schools in Maine. They found that approximately one in four could be classified as academically “higher performing” with student achievement test results above state averages and above comparable schools. Of those schools identified as higher performing, 90 were classified as “more efficient,” a designation that indicates a higher academic performance and a higher return on spending. These more efficient schools were found all across Maine, in both higher- and lower-poverty communities.

Researchers conducted follow-up case studies of 25 schools, 16 more efficient schools and nine schools classified as “typical.” During a series of two-days visits, research teams led more than 370 individual or group interviews, conducted over 1600 classroom observations, and reviewed school documents to identify characteristics that can be emphasized and replicated to help produce better results for students.

“A study like this is critical to the state,” said USM’s David Silvernail, director of CEPARE and report co-author. “We’re facing flat achievement scores, but at the same time facing budget challenges and asking schools to do more with less. Schools have declining funds, so it’s important to find those in Maine that are doing well and getting good returns on spending. It means that we not only may learn by examining other higher-performing states and countries, but that we have schools right here in Maine we can learn from and model their practices.”

Practices found in these higher-performing, more efficient schools include a primary focus on the intellectual development of students to engage them in critical thinking and build core skills, especially in the areas of literacy and numeracy. This focus on cognitive learning also incorporates the social development of students. Additionally, more effective schools have high expectations, hold students accountable for their learning, and provide a rigorous curriculum while offering a full menu of programs and services to identify struggling students early and provide them with help.  

This school-wide focus on learning also involves the professional opportunities and expectations of teachers and leaders. Educators and school leaders at more efficient schools are held accountable for student learning, according to Erika Stump, policy research associate at CEPARE and report co-author. “Teachers at these more efficient schools are provided time and support to improve their craft, with professional development opportunities focused primarily on improving instruction. The staff members in more efficient schools believe they have a moral obligation to focus on the intellectual development of all students.”

Report findings also indicate that more efficient schools typically report slightly higher student-teacher ratios and spend less per pupil. However, “More efficient schools didn’t necessarily achieve efficiency through cutting programs or personnel,” said Stump. “Instead, they invested wisely by creating and sustaining the effective programs and personnel that contributed the most to students' learning and academic performance.”

More efficient schools also implement strategies that result in resourceful use of learning time. Efficient use of learning time, including the school day schedule, class time management, professional meetings, and independent study time for students and educators, is viewed as critical to student achievement.

“More efficient schools have become more astute at increasing the amount of learning time in a school day,” said Silvernail. “You can see this in a shift from the traditional study halls to learning laboratories in more efficient high schools. The students’ time during the day is more structured and focused on academics."

According to Silvernail, solutions to improve efficiency may not always be simple, but they also do not need to be costly. At more efficient schools, transitions between class periods or learning activities averaged between three to four minutes compared to longer transition times of up to 15 minutes at typical schools. This practice can provide up to two months of additional learning time in high school and an additional six months of learning time over the course of a student’s public education.

“Many typical schools in Maine exhibit some of the higher-performing, more efficient practices found in this study, but not systematically,” said Silvernail. “This study concluded that in more efficient schools, each of these practices may be found throughout the school, creating a more prevalent, sustainable focus on the students and their intellectual development. These schools serve as models, and a great deal can be learned from them.”

A copy of the report is available at: www.usm.maine.edu/cepare/news