How do you act when you’re hungry? What LePage’s school grades really show

The governor’s recent report cards of Maine schools tell an important story, but not the one he is trying to tell. Rather than highlight what certain schools are doing well while offering constructive criticism to others, the grades show how closely educational outcomes are tied to economic circumstances.

According to Maine Department of Education data, a staggeringly high 46.8 percent of all Maine students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. There is geographic disparity, with schools in the more economically prosperous southern part of the state unsurprisingly having a lower percentage of students who are eligible than schools north of Freeport.

In some places, like RSU 41 in Piscataquis County, the entire school district is 82 percent eligible. In others, like Cape Elizabeth, the district is just 7.7 percent eligible. Is it any wonder that Cape Elizabeth High School was given an “A” in the recent report cards while RSU 41’s Penquis Valley High School was given an “F?”

These grades have little benefit other than to highlight the very real challenges with which many students and their families are struggling. Does a student at Governor Longley Elementary School in Lewiston, which is almost 100 percent eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, need to be told that her school is failing? Does a middle school teacher at James F. Doughty School in Bangor deserve to have a “C” attached to his efforts despite 64.1 percent of the school being eligible for free and reduced-price lunch while a middle school teacher in Falmouth, where the percentage of students eligible is 5.98 percent, sees his school receive an “A?”

These examples are not just anecdotal pieces of data. Of all the schools that received an “A,” the average percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch was 30.7 percent. For the “B’s,” it was 39.5 percent; the “C’s,” 51.9 percent; the “D’s,” 56.3 percent; and the “F’s,” 64.9 percent. While there are exceptions, schools with higher percentages of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch generally received worse grades undoubtedly because test scores, graduation rates and other quantitative variables in the grading formula were lower at these schools.

We would all like to think that a child’s socioeconomic status does not impact that person’s likelihood of success, but study after study shows that educational and vocational outcomes are highly correlated to economic and family circumstances.

A more helpful strategy in analyzing our schools would be to include demographic data in the state’s calculations. Or schools could be compared against themselves on a year-over-year basis to highlight improvements or declines. School districts could also be compared against districts with comparable demographic characteristics.

Not only is it unfair to the teachers, administrators and the students themselves to compare school districts with vast economic discrepancies, it is also completely inaccurate; wealthier communities are going to be able to support their schools more than poorer ones. That does not mean that teachers and administrators at poorer schools are failing. If anything, the minor miracles that so many teachers perform on a daily basis with limited resources demand praise and recognition instead of labeling the school as “failing.”

This data should also serve as a reminder that hunger is a serious challenge for people all over the state. Think about how you act when you are hungry; I get snippy, impatient and lethargic. A hungry student is not going to be as motivated, will not learn as much and will not get involved with as many extracurricular activities. The negative ripple effect of this reduced engagement will spread throughout that child’s entire life all because he or she may not have had enough to eat.

One might say that government, including the schools, is having to do more and more of what parents and families are supposed to be doing. But on the issue of hunger, keep in mind how many parents are struggling with economic insecurity and hunger themselves. Providing good, wholesome meals in schools is actually one of the best forms of government assistance there is because the benefit is given directly to the people who need it. Moreover, it is an investment in the most important resource we have: our young people. Healthy people are more likely to be successful in school and more likely to find jobs afterward, which means they are more likely to be productive and contributing members of society.

Hopefully the governor’s report cards will shine a light on the economic challenges so many Maine students and their families are facing, including those related to hunger. At least by doing that the grades will have been useful, because as a tool for analyzing school and teacher performance they are not.

Ben Sprague is the chairman of the Bangor City Council.