August 02, 2020

The public’s education

We think of education as an investment, and rightly so. But would any of us invest $1,000 of our own money or $10,000 of our business’ funds on a whim, without an understanding of what we were investing in, without a projection of a likely return? Of course we wouldn’t.

Yet that’s what we — as individuals and businesses — are doing with education, probably the most important investment we will ever make as a society. We pay hefty tax bills to support our schools without understanding how education is being delivered to our children and without a true sense of their chances for success.

Clearly, we’re not getting a satisfactory return from our investment. Of the students who entered 9th grade in 1986, almost one in five failed to graduate with their class.

More than 70 percent of public and private employers say that their young employees lack basic skills, motivation and discipline. While three-fourths of new jobs demand employees with some post-secondary education and training, nearly three-fourths of those entering Maine’s work force do not have those skills. College and vocational educators lament that recently admitted students are not properly prepared.

Indeed, most Maine adults recognize that the education they received as children is no longer good enough for the children of today and tomorrow. Overwhelmingly, we agree that our schools would be more effective if more parents, more businesses and more citizens without school-age children were involved.

And that’s the key: If we are to truly reform education in Maine we must recognize that we all have a stake in improving our educational system. We all support it. We all pay for its shortcomings. And we all stand to gain from its improvement.

This common fate was acknowledged in 1990 when a diverse group of Maine citizens — business leaders, parents, educators and public officials — came together to form the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education.

Two years of hard work has produced a report, soon to be issued, that represents not the end of our efforts, but the beginning of a new way of looking at education in Maine.

The education reform we are proposing isn’t about curricula, standards or requirements. It’s not about the length of the school day or the school year. And it’s not about the role of teachers and administrators. Granted, each figures in the discussion, but the reform we envision transcends all of these individual issues.

It demands that we radically restructure our education system by building from the needs up, rather than from the institution down.

Instead of relying on process, we must demand results. Instead of tinkering with inputs, we must establish outcomes. Instead of excusing failure, we must reward success.

These changes will not occur overnight but, just as the rallying cry of the American Revolution was the Declaration of Independence, this new revolution in education must begin with a simple recognition of our interdependence. We must declare, with the same passion and zeal of our Founders, that:

We are all the owners of the public education system;

As owners, we bear a responsibility to participate in the system;

The accountability of the system and its employees, and its funding, rest with us;

Our children’s future depends on the improvement of the system; and

This improvement depends on our participation.

In short, we have to put public education back in the hands of the public.

That is the essence of our report. It is a document built on consensus, which may disappoint some. But time is running out, and blaming each other for the failure of the system will not free our children from the tryanny of an inadequate education. The vision we offer, and the strategies for its implementation, are firmly rooted in the belief that, when it comes to a better education for our children, we’re all on the same side.

Our present education system was developed 100 years ago in response to a new industrial age. It is time once again to meet the challenges of yet another new age — a New World Order, in fact — that is being shaped right before our eyes.

Extraordinary advances in technology, along with sweeping changes in the political and economic realities of our world, dictate that we come together again to take bold action and launch a new era in American education.

On behalf of the members of the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education, I urge you to read our report, to consider its message and get involved with our schools. Restructuring our education system calls for all owners — all taxpayers — to take a meaningful role in educating our children and to share responsibility for their success.

We need your participation.

We can no longer invest passively in education, accepting as our only return the hope that future generations will be able to compete and contribute as productive citizens. Our expectations must be greater — much greater.

At the very least, we must guarantee all of our children the self-sufficiency adulthood demands and the opportunity to be among the best educated in the world.

After all, they are holding Maine’s future — our future — in their hands.

James F. Orr III is chairman of the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education and the chairman and CEO of UNUM.

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