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LETTER: Public education isn’t working in L-A

To the Editor:

Perception can easily be more influential than reality. This is why the front-page stories praising the success of Somali and Bantu high school students in the Lewiston Sun Journal on June 12 were disturbing.

First, I find nothing untrue in the stories. I believe that the Bantu student, Shobow Saban, overcame great difficulties in achieving his high school diploma, and I believe that Somali student Asha Mohamud graduated 11th in her class. I believe that Asha is exceptional, that she is multi-lingual and, more importantly, I believe she started school without the non-English-language-speaking handicap of most Somali students.

I agree with Principal LeBlanc that any progress in educating non-English speaking students is a success story. I am convinced that Lewiston High School teachers work hard in teaching their Somali and Bantu students—they have to.

Providing an education to students who begin school not speaking English is a formidable challenge. Providing an acceptable education to native-born Lewiston students who begin school speaking English is also a challenge and one we have failed at. Attempting to simultaneously teach both types of students is unnecessarily complicated.

This is why the Sun Journal stories were so disturbing. When we read those stories that justifiably applaud the accomplishments of Somali and Bantu students we could easily infer that native-born Lewiston students are also doing well—but they aren’t. We could also infer that, finally, our non-English-speaking children are succeeding—they aren’t.

The reality of the education of our students is markedly different from the inferences easily drawn from the Sun Journal stories. In May of 2010, Lewiston High School’s and Edward Little High School’s juniors, now the graduating classes of 2011, were tested with the SAT. No more than 50 percent of the “White non-Hispanic” students scored “Proficient” or higher.

Some, perhaps embarrassed, educators rush to claim the SAT is an inappropriate instrument for high school students. The SAT, originally designed to predict a student’s ability to succeed in college, has been carefully studied and graded by leading educators to appropriately test the academic knowledge of high school juniors.

This SAT is similar to a large outdoor thermometer intended to measure outdoor temperatures but has, because of necessity, been brought inside to measure indoor temperatures. The outdoor thermometer may not be performing its original intent, but its readings are still reliable, and so are the SAT’s. These failing test results, like high blood pressure readings, cannot be safely dismissed.

We have to accept that after more than 10 years of public education, only half or less of our children are able to successfully pass an academic test. As unpleasant as it might be, we also have to believe that the students who failed the SAT in May a year ago—their failure concealed by a cap and gown as they marched side by side this June with those that did pass—received their diplomas. This was a waste of resources and a tragedy for both students and the community.

The State of Maine annually spends a more than half its total budget upon education in its various forms, including retirement. And still, after expending the resources this money represents and after 12 or more years of effort, our educators have been unsuccessful with half of our students. Worse, when inadequately educated students are graduated, their diplomas will provide no warning that they were unable to pass a standardized academic test.

The reality of the education of our Somali and Bantu students is much worse. If we examine the disappointing NECAP results for the fifth-grade class at Governor James B. Longley Elementary School, we will find those test results representative of their education.

The NECAP, The New England Common Assessment Program, was designed and agreed upon by leading educators. It is administered to students in grades three through eight in four of the six New England states.

The NECAP test results do not specifically identify Somali and Bantu students, but we may expect to find them within the “Black or African American” demographic category. We find that of the 14 students tested for Writing, only one was “Proficient;” in Mathematics, only one student was “Proficient;” in Reading, only two were “Proficient.” All the remaining students failed and were rated as “Substantially Below Proficient.”

To put these results in some kind of perspective, I have recently been informed that 20 percent of the adults in Androscoggin County are illiterate; the definition of illiteracy is the inability to read at a fifth-grade level. Therefore, 11 of the 14 fifth-grade students tested were illiterate.

These conditions are only marginally better in high school. In the May 2010 SAT, no more than 25 percent of “Black or African American” students scored “Proficient” or better in any academic discipline in either high school.

A little truth and disclosure: More than a decade ago, after retirement, I discovered that public education’s failure was obvious and, worse, ignored. My advocacy for improving education began so simply that today I can’t mark its start. But I slowly and, I believe, unintentionally became involved and then further involved because of the denial and excuses I encountered.

As a consequence, I know more today about education than I ever intended. I know most emphatically that public denial is the most significant problem: the public, at a gut level, doesn’t believe there is a problem. The more enlightened acknowledge there are problems, but believe that educators are about to make the necessary corrections—they aren’t.

If public education is ever to be substantially changed, denial will have to be overcome and the public will have to become angrily aroused.

Richard Sabine


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