Family income largely decides school grades

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Here’s a modest proposal to help Maine’s citizens judge the effectiveness of Gov. Paul LePage’s new A-F grading system for public schools.

For the 2014-2015 school year, teachers and administrators at the Falmouth Elementary School will exchange places with teachers and administrators at Lewiston’s Longley Elementary School.

Falmouth Elementary got an A in the recent rankings while Longley received an F. Like nobody saw that coming.

If the A-F rating system for individual schools has any merit, Longley School should quickly rise in the rankings because teachers and administrators from Falmouth will bring their winning ways with them.

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We all realize, of course, that merely switching teachers won’t make a darn bit of difference.

The problems at Longley are outside the school building, not within. We know the people working there and they are working double time to improve the school’s educational outcomes. We believe their passion and dedication are unmatched.

They have taken on what is perhaps the most difficult educational challenge in Maine.

So, as a way of thanking them, the governor and school commissioner have now hung an F for failure on their building.

That stinks, and Education Commissioner Steve Bowen knows it. “We understand a letter grade does not tell the whole story of a student, nor does it tell the whole story of a school,” Bowen said in a press release accompanying the rankings.

But, hey, we’re going to do it anyway.

The problem at Longley is poverty, the kind of deep poverty that breeds more poverty.

One census tract in downtown Lewiston, the one nearest the Sun Journal, is the poorest tract in the state with a median family income of $11,194. The median family income in Falmouth is $117,578.

Nearly one in five of the students at Longley is an English Language Learner. In Falmouth it’s less than one in 100.

The Lewiston Public Schools spend $3,792 per pupil on “regular instruction,” according to the Department of Education, compared to $5,638 per pupil in Falmouth.

As some quickly pointed out, the state’s new grading system closely correlates with the number of children receiving free or reduced-price meals.

Meaning the new grading system tells us mainly what we already knew: affluent, educated people have high-achieving children. Students from families in poverty struggle in school.

Thomas Jefferson, the landed aristocrat and slave owner who inherited a 5,000-acre plantation and 20-40 slaves, told us in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal.

But from birth forward, things become unequal very quickly, especially in modern America with its astounding and growing income gap between the wealthy and the poor. Jefferson himself knew that black babies went to the slave quarters and white ones to the mansion.

A baby who goes from the hospital to an apartment in downtown Lewiston is nearly guaranteed a very different life than a baby brought to a home in Falmouth.

One is likely to experience the best of everything — stable family, two educated parents, medical care, safety, nutritious food, enriching vacations and weekend trips, tutoring and summer camps.

Let’s just say the kid in Lewiston will have a lot less of the good stuff and see a lot more of the bad — crime, violence, drugs and chaos.

Those experiences, good and bad, are brought into the classroom every day and largely determine success.

The governor’s goal is to improve educational outcomes in Maine, and we believe he is sincere about that.

But trying to pressure and embarrass inner-city administrators and teachers into improving performance is counterproductive and demeaning.

Falmouth is a pleasant place, and we admire its residents for making the education and success of their children a top priority.

But excellent education is a lot easier executed in a place where everyone speaks English, comes to school prepared and has a pair of parents making sure the homework gets done each night.

We know that, and we suspect the teachers and administrators in Falmouth do as well. The only people who don’t seem to recognize reality are LePage and Bowen.

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In the interest of full disclosure, the Sun Journal has had an Adopt-A-School relationship with Longley Elementary for the past 20 years.

rrhoades@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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