A Semi-Kudo for the Vermont Fourth Estate

by Martin Harris

If, because of your interest in political theory and practice, you follow the news and commentary columns in the so-called MainStreamMedia, both print and electronic, you know that the recent practice of selecting subjects for reporting and opinion on the basis of their “fit” with a somewhat left-of-center ideological template is an accusation frequently made by right-of-center folks. It’s not easily proveable; critics cite circulation decline for print media (like The New York Times) in contrast to circulation growth for the one major newspaper not deemed guilty of the practice (The Wall Street Journal), but maybe MSM print readers are just going electronic? Or, they cite specific news stories in terms of what facts are in (or not) or even when some stories get no coverage (until pressured by outside forces) at all because they don’t fit the template. Anecdotal or pattern? It shows, most frequently, in coverage (or not) of the productivity-decline questions (and denials) surrounding modern public education..

Some subjects aren’t covered at all, because they’re uncomfortable: in Vermont, for example, there’s been near-zero Fourth Estate attention to the “establishment” solution for the chronically-low-test-scores question. Federal test scores published annually for all States, major cities, and selected student sub-groups, have been available since 1969 under the NAEP label (National Assessment of Educational Progress) and the dismal level of results in all States (2/3 of students can’t make “Proficient” in Reading and Math, meaning they can’t function at grade level) has almost never been reported. In contrast, Vermont’s on-going search for easier substitute tests on which higher percentages could appear to be Proficient, has been well-covered: first NSRE, then NECAP, soon, perhaps, SMARTER. Never a Fourth Estate word on comparing the easier State tests to the more rigorous national ones. In marked contrast: column-inches for favorable news (and even LttE’s) on two key parts of the “establishment” solution: pre-K and smaller classes.

Even your Humble Scribe, amateur researcher on such subjects, has been able to able to compile inch-thick files listing governmental and think-tank studies of both preferred strategies; such research invariably documents their failure to improve majority-non-Proficient achievement levels (ever-smaller classes) or to show lasting benefit once students reach Grade 1 (conventional, Head-Start-type, pre-K) and yet such studies (or LttE’s reciting them) almost never get ink or mention. Thus the semi-kudo: cheers to the editors for recently covering pre-K and class size at all, non-cheers for non-coverage of, as early radio- journalist Paul Harvey once quipped, “the rest of the story”. Two examples: first, the Rutland pre-school enthusiast awarded nearly a foot of LttE space for her heartfelt concerned-mother pro-pre-K letter, while your Humble Scribe was awarded zero for his single-paragraph submission reciting the recent dismal results-findings of the Health-and-Human-Services April 2012 study, with recommendations that henceforth , pre-K centers change their ways and compete for future funds. And second, the worried-tone piece on Clarendon’s possible “‘raising of class sizes” in early May, including the Superintendent’s confident re-assurance that “optimal class size is 18 to 1 teacher” and that, of course, “there’s rarely only 1 teacher in a class of that size at the school.” Not a mention of official (State Ed Dept) guidance on the class size subject.

Maybe that’s because, as the Superintendent of the Supervisory Union including Clarendon Town District well knows, and as a reporter assigned the education “beat” should know, and probably does, the State-adopted “Class Size Policy Guidelines” call for 15 students per teacher, minimum, in the primary grades, and up to 20 in the secondary grades. He’s quoted as dismissing these requirements: “there’s rarely only one teacher in a class of that size at the school” and yet the reporter avoids mention of his overt and casual flouting of the SED rules, and, indeed, of the SED rules themselves. In, fact, as is well-known, Vermont’s average class size (just about, if not exactly, the same as pupil-teacher ratio) is closer to 10-1, a State-wide edu-crat flouting of the State’s own rules. Why unreported? You decide.

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The official Vermont-Fourth-Estate answer to that question was proffered to your Humble Scribe nearly three decades back in an impromptu discussion in the State House: “what you want is investigative reporting, and we don’t have the resources to do it.” It came up in reference to the then-new but still standard practice of edu-crats pushing a bond issue by claiming schools are overcrowded, never citing either enrollment stats or building capacity numbers (indeed, by quiet policy, the once-public data have become increasingly difficult for taxpayers to get) and my question asking why the Fourth Estate reporters never demanded answers so readers could compare actual daily enrollment to actual building capacity and see for themselves how much of an “overcrowded “ situation actually exists. Figuring out why, in that case, was actually easy.

With educators across the State engaged in major class size shrinkage, fewer students were going (and are still going) into each 25-pupil (standard) capacity classroom; thus, even with fewer students total, there was still a new shortage of teaching stations. A class of 15 using a room for 25 at 60% space-utilization efficiency will do that for you. But, stated so baldly, it doesn’t sell well for a bond issue proposal; thus the edu-crat decision, and the Fourth Estate quiet acquiescence, for a policy of not reporting “the rest of the story.”

Their position on economics-in-journalism could (Humble Scribe guess) could be summarized thus: only the Washington Post could ever afford to practice “investigative journalism” and that was only in the rare instance, some forty years ago, of a burglar break-in at the Watergate complex. Mere violation of officially-adopted State education policies by State-approved school superintendents doesn’t even come close. As for Paul Harvey and ‘the rest of the story”, he died in 2009. MSM interest in reporting it had already died a couple of decades earlier. Even though there’s a nearly-no-cost way of achieving the same reporting objective.

It frequently shows in the news columns of the Journal, with a sentence like this: “Repeated inquiries to the Interstellar Widget CEO’s office on the subject of dramatic declines in product quality and customer satisfaction have gone unanswered.” Asking the question (and not getting an answer) costs the news desk almost nothing, and yet the fact of the official decision not to answer is news in and of itself. An aspiring Vermont Fourth Estater might, for example, repeatedly ask the Commissioner of Education to explain the enormous gap between his students’ achievement scores on the State-preferred (NECAP) as opposed to the Federal (NAEP) tests, with the former seemingly so much “better” than the latter, and report his explanation (or more likely, non-reply) as worthy of parent and taxpayer attention.