Maine's teachers were heartened last week when recently collected data showed that fewer Maine students entering the university system needed remediation help than students in other states.
Only 12 percent of this year's freshmen class in the University of Maine System who came from Maine high schools needed the extra help compared to 24 to 39 percent in other New England states.
Of greater concern, perhaps, is the 50 percent of students from Maine high schools entering the state's community college system needing remediation. As bad as that sounds, it's still better than the 60 percent average nationwide for community colleges.
"This proves our public schools are succeeding and we should continue to invest in a system we know produces positive results," Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley said in a press release.
A spokesman for Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen was far less enthusiastic.
"I find it mind-boggling that anyone can suggest 50 percent is a success," David Connerty-Marin told the Portland Press Herald. "It's like saying, 'Great, I'm getting a D but everyone else is getting an F.'"
The remediation rate for students entering community colleges is a problem in more ways than one.
First, it means students, parents and the public are often being "double billed" for much of this learning.
We pay taxes to support public schools, then students and parents often pay again to learn what they should have learned the first time around.
Taxpayers, meanwhile, pay dearly to support public schools and pay again to support our university system and community colleges.
Second, students taking remedial courses to enter community college are much less likely to leave with degrees.
A study by ACT Inc., the college-placement testing organization, found that fewer than 10 percent of those entering remedial courses at a community college graduate within three years.
"U.S. colleges should not take hundreds of thousands of ill-prepared students and put them through ineffective remedial-education programs only to see them fail to graduate while running up significant college-loan debt," said Richard Vetter, who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity at Ohio University.
"Many of these academically marginal students might excel in non-college-degree vocational programs that teach skills in relatively high-demand jobs, which pay reasonably well," Vetter wrote in a Bloomberg News column.
That, of course, would be music to the ears of Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who has been urging Maine schools to promote vocational programs such as welding and automotive repair for students less likely to succeed in a more academic program.
The State's Workforce Investment Board recently announced it would be pumping more of its money into "job-specific skills training." Two years ago, 15 percent of its funds were going toward such training. Its new goal is to spend 40 percent of its money that way.
One way to tackle the remediation problem might be to simply require students to take more math in high school.
A dean at Southern Maine Community College recently told the Portland Press Herald that remediation is needed mainly in math. Too many high school students apparently opt out of math courses in high school, leaving them unprepared for college work.
The bottom line is that too many students entering community college need too much remediation, which is costly and often leads to eventual disappointment.
We urgently need a better way.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.