Kerri Wyman (left) assistant principal at the new Central Community Elementary School talks to students about where to find their classroom on the first day of school in Corinth, Aug. 31, 2016.

If poor students in Maine were able to achieve the same academic success as their economically secure peers, the state’s GDP could grow by as much as 164 percent in the next 80 years. That’s the message from a robust economic study that found states can better their economies by improving their educational systems.

“Improving” our education system is defined in the economic study by Eric Hanushek and colleagues as closing the achievement gap. In Maine, that gap is between children living in poverty and children living in economically secure households. If all of our children were able to reach the average score of our economically secure students, Maine would be second in the nation for academic achievement.

Children living in poverty too often lack the opportunities to obtain a quality education for many reasons that too many teachers are fully aware of. Children living in poverty have increased absenteeism, often for health issues related to a lack of health care coverage and access. Too many children are “transient,” moving between schools because of insecure housing, homelessness and foster care changes. And too many children in our state have inadequate access to high-quality early childhood programs and after-school and summer programs due to limited transportation and programming.

Educate Maine, a business and education coalition, has been tracking educational improvements and the achievement gaps in their annual indicators report. The latest report shows great improvement in access to pre-kindergarten programs as a result of focused policy and investments. In a related report, Making Maine Work, researchers have demonstrated that investment in high-quality early childhood education in Maine provides a nearly 5-to-1 return on investment, or $125,400 lifetime return, in the form of higher tax revenue and reduced social costs, on a $26,200 investment. There are few places where that investment of our public funds will get such a high rate of return.

A key point in Hanushek and colleagues’ Education Next study is to focus on quality rather than just quantity of schooling. This is a really important distinction that we must pay attention to in policy decisions. Previous research focused on quantity of education by measuring human capital as just number of years of schooling.

This study focuses on quality of education by shifting to a more accurate predictive measure. Predicting quality of education requires looking not only at years of schooling, but also academic achievement. This approach provides a more nuanced picture of the actual cognitive skills of workers in the state.

Too many recent educational reforms have focused solely on access to education, which has led to rapid expansion of programming, sometimes without concern for quality. We will not obtain the desired impacts from our investments with low-quality programs.

High-quality teachers are essential to high-quality education. We must support teachers with livable wages such as state Sen. Rebecca Millett’s 2015 bill for teacher quality. We must also ensure our teachers are well prepared as state Rep. Victoria Kornfield, co-chair of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, has done by rejecting efforts to allow anyone with eight years of “relevant” experience to teach without any preparation in literacy or pedagogy.

We must also invest in improving school leadership as Gov.-elect Janet Mills has pledged to support while on the campaign trail. In his aptly named article It Pays to Improve School Quality ,” Hanushek, an educational economist, says, “Any state political leader of vision would do well to make school quality a high priority.”

Maine has a lot to gain economically and in our collective quality of life from improving educational outcomes for children living in poverty that includes ensuring high-quality teaching, access to health care, secure housing and transportation.

Flynn Ross is chair of the Teacher Education Department and coordinator of the Extended Teacher Education Program at the University of Southern Maine. These views are her own as she is not authorized to represent the university or the University of Maine System. She is co-coordinator of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.