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Letters: Poverty doesn’t have to guarantee academic failure

To the Editor:

A student who doesn’t understand a lesson and the adult who doesn’t understand a joke may each pretend to understand. The adult’s naivety might be a lack of adult experience. A student’s deficient vocabulary might be their naivety, their lack of experience.

Deficient vocabularies find residence amidst poverty and so do difficulties in learning. This is affirmed by reviewing results from the 2012 NECAP standardized test. We expect test scores to correlate to community income, and where we find poor test scores we expect to find poverty and almost always do.

The communities of Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth, with the second- and third-highest per capita incomes in Maine ($37,983 and $36,716 respectively), have fourth-grade reading proficiency scores of 86% and 81%. This means that 86 out of 100 fourth-grade students in Cape Elizabeth read proficiently or better; in Falmouth, it’s 81 out of 100.

Auburn and Lewiston, with the 121st and 194th highest per capita incomes in Maine ($19,942 and $17,905) have fourth-grade reading proficiency scores of 64% and 54%.

Fourth-grade reading proficiency persuasively predicts children in Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth will have academic success in high school and a comparable success later in life. Low proficiency scores predict children in Auburn and Lewiston will not.

Our educators recognize our poverty as a teaching problem and too eagerly embrace it as an excuse. This excuse, already well worn, will remain in service for a long time because with inadequate education, our poverty will persistently remain. But poverty doesn’t have to guarantee failure.

There are schools that believe all normally developing children, including the economically disadvantaged, can learn. These schools establish challenging teaching and learning goals. To meet these goals, each lesson is taught with the intent to reach as many as possible and to ensure that those who didn’t understand have the additional help needed.

Montgomery Center School in Vermont is such a school. The Montgomery Center School has amazing statistics. First, the community’s per capita income ($16,570) is lower than it is in Lewiston or Auburn. Second, this school has been academically successful for years and continues to improve.

Its entire elementary school, tested with the same NECAP test used in Auburn and Lewiston, has 99% proficiency in reading. Its fifth grade is 100% proficient. Montgomery provides high-quality instruction; continuously assesses its teaching and learning; and regularly improves its processes.

Obviously, our schools don’t. Why not?

Dick Sabine


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