October 26, 2013

Our View: Opportunity in schools not evenly distributed

Maine kids did well against global peers, but poverty still holds us back.

Once again, an international study shows that American students don’t stack up well against their counterparts in other countries. Released by the National Center for Education Statistics, it shows that the United States in the middle of the pack, far behind Japan and Korea and slightly ahead of Slovenia.

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The poorest states and the poorest countries tend to have the lowest test scores, which is why addressing poverty and the way it disrupts a child’s ability to learn is key to improving the schools.

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But the story is different when you treat the 50 states as individual countries. Many states did quite well – including Maine, which ranked seventh in math and fifth in science, in close competition with Quebec and Russia. The story was less rosy for other states, with Mississippi and Alabama near the bottom of the list, competing with the Ukraine, Dubai and Armenia.

One way to read this data is to say that Gov. LePage is wrong when he says our school system is the among the worst. As this study shows, that’s not true compared to the other states, and it’s not true compared to other countries.

But it’s too soon to celebrate, because just as achievement is unequally distributed among the states and nations, that’s the way it’s distributed within them, too.

Maine’s much-maligned A-F grading system, launched by the state this year, was rightly criticized because it tracked so closely to a community’s income. While it purported to show which schools were doing a good job and which ones needed improvement, instead it showed which communities had a lot of families living in poverty.

The governor was right about one thing, though: It’s true that kids from the poorest towns are not achieving at the same level as those in the wealthiest ones. As the global study shows, the poorest states and the poorest countries tend to have the lowest scores.

That’s why improving the schools can’t be done without addressing poverty and the way it disrupts a child’s ability to learn.

Charter schools and pedagogic innovations may help children in the lowest-scoring districts do better, but making sure every student has enough to eat, lives in a house that’s heated and is safe from violence would probably help much more. This report is good news for the state’s beleaguered schools, but it could be even better if we gave low-income families the help they need for their children to succeed in school.

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