Well I’ll be dipped in batter and fried golden.  Somebody finally gets it.  Being poor does not equate with being stupid.  Let’s hear it for Robyn Gray.

A letter from Ms. Gray appeared in the September 16, 2007, issue of the Morrison County Record in which she responds to Joe Nathan’s article from the previous issue of the Record.  Mr. Nathan, who is with the University of Minnesota, discusses how the Little Falls Middle School made the “needs improvement” list of the Minnesota Department of Education.  He places the blame with students of low income families and students with special needs.

Ms. Gray states very well things I have long been thinking about this subject.  She says in her letter, “I raised four children in the Little Falls school district and I cannot remember one time that they would have been asked on a standardized test what their family income is.  I am dismayed at the generalizations that are constantly being made about low-income families and single parent families in our school district.”

Every time tests results are released and it appears the Little Falls school district hasn’t done well, the school’s administration trots out the magic 38 percent figure.  That’s the number of kids who qualify for free and reduced lunch in the district.  By mentioning the poverty level, they imply that poor kids are stupid.  Yes, it’s blunt, but that’s what they’re thinking.  Those darn poor kids.  If they weren’t so stupid, we’d do better.

Ms. Gray is absolutely correct in saying that none of the standardized tests ask for the income level of the family.  So, how is it we suddenly correlate poverty with low test scores?  Is someone sitting in a room comparing free and reduced lunch eligibility forms with test scores from individual students?  If so, what happened to the privacy rights of those filling out the free and reduced lunch eligibility forms?  If not, why is the assumption being made without solid research?

Let’s think of this from a different angle.  What happens to the intelligence of a child whose parents can afford to pay full price for school lunch one year, and the next, due to changing life circumstances, the child is eligible for free lunch?  Does the child suddenly lose IQ points from one year to the next?

What about poor kids who score well on standardized tests?  I know several children whose parents would be classified as poor, yet they consistently score above state and district averages on standardized tests.

You see, two parents and a hefty income do not guarantee intelligence.  Look to Paris Hilton, Brittney Spears and George W. if you want some high-profile examples.

By marrying poverty to lack of intelligence, the well-to-do can rationalize their position in society by claiming they deserve their riches.  They can stay smug on the mountain top.

When the school system marries poverty to intelligence, it can stop looking for what’s really behind the low test scores.  “Hey, it’s not our fault our kids are poor and stupid.”

The district doesn’t need to examine the rise in class fees, which immediately put students from poor families at a disadvantage.  For example, kids who take calculus in high school are required to have a graphing calculator, which costs $100-$140.  It’s a hefty expense, but because they are required, many families will fork over the dough so their kids have them when doing homework.  The cost is an impossibility for poor families, who are often trying desperately to make sure their kids are fed.  A handful of graphing calculators are kept in the classroom for these kids, but they have to share them and they can’t take them home – hence, they don’t have equal access to the supplies they need.  As more and more class fees are charged, the poor are cut out of the picture even further.  Why bother taking calculus, or any other high-level class if you can’t afford the required supplies?  (Not to mention all the fees required for regular classes.)

The district does not have to examine the loads of homework they send home with students.  The expectation is that parents will assist their children with homework, yet single-parent families and families in poverty tend to work so hard in dealing with their situations that they may not have time to help with homework.  It’s not lack of will or lack of love; it’s lack of time and energy.  This leaves poor children at a risk of falling behind in their studies.

In the end, the whole point of public school is to make sure everyone has equal access to education, regardless of income level.  Rather than point fingers at the poor and call them stupid, how about we figure out what’s really going on?

Steamed in my own juices,

Phineas F. A. Pickerel