Don’t blame the schools

Every time the governor talks about them, he says our public schools are failing.

He bases this on test scores and student performance. He cites Maine students’ low proficiency scores. And then he blames the public school system, school administrators, and school unions.

Test scores may be going down, but let’s look at what’s going up.

The number of students in poverty is growing.

According to the US Census Bureau, one in five Maine students in school today live below the poverty level. One in five!

What does it mean for these students to live in poverty? They come to school hungry. They do not have warm coats and boots. If they are lucky, they have a roof over their heads when they get home, but child homelessness is on the rise. They likely return to an empty house as parents work long hours in two or more jobs. They feel the stress/distress of money shortages and parental worries; perhaps even a lack of emotional support.

Kids with growling stomachs cannot concentrate in class. Students whose homes are cold for lack of fuel oil do not study well and are more likely to miss classes because of preventable illness. Children whose parents work nights and cannot help them with homework do not learn as well as other students. Students worried because their Dad or Mom just lost a job do not score high on tests.

And this doesn’t even begin to consider the impact on learning from toxic stress situations that many low-income children experience, like alcoholism, abuse, or homelessness.

The research is clear. Students who live in poverty often fail. Consider these studies:

Students from low economic status have a 63-85 percent higher fail rate in school. (Maranzo, 2004).

Young children from poverty families have about 45 percent of the vocabulary of a child from a professional family (Hart & Risley, 1995).

When a parent loses his or her job, there is a 15% increase in the probability that a child will repeat a grade in school (Stevens & Schaller, 2009).

Not only is there evidence that low-income children don’t perform as well, there is new research that suggests poverty impairs their ability to learn, resulting from changes to the brain (National Institutes of Health, 2012).

Children living in poverty start out at a disadvantage and require more resources and teacher effort just to bring their test scores up to an average level or to simply prevent them from dropping out. As more low-income students populate our public schools, test scores drop.

To increase student test scores the way the governor wants, Maine must invest in its kids and working families, just like we invest in our businesses. This means funding programs like food assistance, TANF, and general assistance. This means expanding MaineCare so more families have access to health care. This means giving low-income parents the family supports they need to work or go to school, like child care, Head Start, and transportation. It means putting more money in the pockets of working families through refundable tax credits, property tax and rent relief, and higher wages.

We can’t improve student performance by cutting state aid for education and slashing Medicaid and family services. The way to give kids a better chance at learning is to make them safe, healthy, and sufficiently fed.