Should Maine's Whiter Schools Do Better?

C.K. Burns School in Saco - by Flickr user brentdanley

Recently, detractors of public schooling are executing this most provocative reverse-gainer:

“Okay, we concede that Maine may actually rank in the top third nationally in test scores. But the scores elsewhere are pulled down substantially by blacks and Hispanics. Maine has hardly any blacks. If you compare Maine against only the white scores in other states, Maine is consistently substandard. This proves Maine schools are failing.”

It’s unlikely to find this in print. But it did just appear explicitly on the conservative AsMaineGoes web forum. I’ve also heard it furtively whispered a few times around the state complex in Augusta.

For those prone to bananas-to-bananas comparisons, there is an alluring symmetry to the surface logic. Let’s toss out all those troublesome minorities and let our white guys compete against their white guys and, for once, we’ll have a fair measure on a level playing field.

But what is the real underlying premise? Is anyone out there really prepared to theorize in 2011 that educational achievement is inherently retarded by relative skin color?

Instead, we conventionally presume race as a shorthand categorization of the relative states of socio-economic disadvantage for which race may remain an unfortunately reliable proxy -- at least where communities with racial diversity are prominently apparent.

But in places such as Maine where racially differentiated communities are unusual, are we then, in their absence, conversely to presume uniformity of economic advantage? 

Maine in fact ranks 32nd nationally in median household income and 33rd nationally by US Census poverty rate, with neither statistic suggesting that abundant socio-economic advantage collectively results from our whiteness.

Indeed, from this foundation, Maine’s top-third test scores would appear to indicate that Maine’s schools are returning some value from the puckerbrush.

But, for those incurably drawn to comparing test scores by racial subgroup, here’s another one to ponder: What special skills do we attribute to Maine’s schools for enabling our black 8th-graders to produce the second highest reading scores in the nation, trailing only black Hawaiians?

...and, for extra credit for over-achievers: What reforms does this factoid suggest for the other 48 states should they hope to emulate Maine’s success?