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LETTER: School policies should be judged by jury

To the Editor:

It is generally agreed that a good education is the key to future success and wealth. What is forgotten is that the opposite is also true: an inadequate education leads to unemployment and poverty.

Accordingly, the signs are obvious—and so is the future. Our public schools are failing. But because the community is generally unaware, because the failure is denied by school officials, it will be difficult to confront and solve.

NECAP testing in October and the identified failure of Park Avenue, Sherwood Heights and Washburn Elementary Schools in Auburn and Farwell in Lewiston provided the warning signs. School officials admit to low test scores, but remain reluctant to admit schools are failing. Accordingly, they are unable or unwilling to identify the causative problems and therefore unable to solve them.

Instead, they denounce the test and further explain their own failure by citing the well-known difficulties of teaching English Language Learners and the economically disadvantaged.

Using the NECAPs demographics, we can remove English Language Learners from the test results. We can compare the academic performance of “White” fifth-grade mathematics classes in Lewiston’s elementary schools. (Choosing the fifth grade was an arbitrary choice.)

In Farwell, 29% failed to score proficient or higher; in Geiger, 38% failed; in Longley, there were an insufficient number of “White” students, but 94% of the students in the “Black or African American” demographic failed to score proficient or higher; in Martel, 57% of the “White” students failed to score proficient or higher; in McMahon, 50% failed; and in Montello, 37% failed.

Although Farwell is an identified failing school, it performed better in fifth-grade mathematics than all the other elementary schools. Accordingly, parents with children in Farwell might leave them there for an additional school year; it is a lesser evil. Parents of children in any of Auburn’s failing schools might transfer them to East Auburn Community School or as a second choice to Fairview. These two schools are not great schools, but they are better than the failing schools.

Lewiston’s Middle School is also identified as failing; and in Lewiston High School, 50% or more of the “White (non-Hispanic)” junior class failed to score proficient or higher in any academic discipline on the most recent SAT administered in May 2010.

The denial of school officials is so entrenched that, when confronted with these disappointing test results, they dispute the efficacy of both the NECAP and the SAT. Yet the NECAP was adopted as an appropriate instrument only after being reviewed by educators and other interested parties.

The SAT was similarly vetted and reputedly the former head of the math department at Lewiston High School was among those evaluators. Just because school officials don’t admit our schools are failing doesn’t mean they aren’t.

There is additional evidence of failure. Local businesses test their job applicants, including high school graduates, to ensure they possess ninth-grade skills necessary for job training. Testing high school graduates for ninth-grade abilities shows a lack of confidence: like using your napkin to wipe your silverware when invited to dinner; it shouldn’t be necessary.

An additional, harder-to-deny indication of the academic quality of high school graduates is that of the 554 high school graduates entering CMCC in the fall of 2010, 39% had to take one or more remedial courses. Of this group, 27% failed to pass one or more of these remedial courses.

What future is there for students unable to meet the challenges of the community college? And, although there might be employment available for students who do not posses ninth-grade skills, applicants will easily exceed the available jobs.

For over a decade, school officials have annually provided reassurances that the schools were not doing as poorly as test results indicated. They predicted better test results while also explaining that the test results shouldn’t be taken to mean what they are purported to mean: that the schools were failing.

We cannot depend upon educators to solve a problem they deny exists, and we cannot expect them to produce better results by continuing policies that caused the problem.

The changes that could improve our schools are so obvious they must have been considered and deliberately rejected. The elimination of teacher tenure is the most important.

We all remember exceptional teachers and ineffective teachers. It is generally accepted among educators that an exceptional teacher can advance their class a year-and-a-half during a single school year and, conversely, that a poor teacher can retard theirs by half a year. Imposing a half-year or even longer educational handicap onto a child may be more than they can overcome.

Our insistence, as a community, to agree to a contract that imposes ineffective teachers upon our children is shameful.

The refusal to evaluate teachers and replace the ineffective with the capable provides wonderful job security for teachers; it does nothing for students. Any effort to eliminate tenure will be thwarted by the teachers’ union and supported by politicians fearful of incurring its displeasure.

Since candidates for the school committee are politicians, they are particularly vulnerable to the political influence of the teachers’ union. Until 25 years ago, the Lewiston City Council appointed the school committees. Appointed committee members should also be fearful of the teacher’s union, since they are political reflections of those that appoint them.

But appointed or elected, the powerful teachers’ lobby and the voting power of its members make both types of committees ineffective. Unfortunately, students have neither well-funded lobbyists nor voters among their numbers.

We need an unbiased group to determine important school policies—one immune to political pressure—a group representative of our community and one not seeking endorsement, funds or the good will of the teacher’s union. We should employ a randomly chosen jury.

We entrust juries to determine innocence or guilt, liability and sometimes life or death. It doesn’t get much more responsible than that.

These jurors, everyday citizens with life experiences in earning a living, would be able to fairly judge each issue. Without partisan gridlock, they could become our best hope to overcome powerful lobbies and make it possible for our children to obtain the education and the future they desperately need.

Dick Sabine

Lewiston

 

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