Anti-Gravitational Opinion

By Martin Harris

Martin Harris

If there are joys associated with having the “editor” nameplate on your desk at your publishing office, I’d guess that getting to write the op-ed column is right up there with such other perks as directing your staff, balancing your budget, and pleasing your board of directors. Unlike your reporters, who are supposed to report objectively, not opinion, but “all the news”, and frequently suppress those inconvenient facts which don’t match the desired public-instruction correct-think purpose (see last week’s column on this subject) you are fully free under Fourth Estate Code of Conduct rules to opine as you see fit, citing those facts which, you can argue, support your opinion and ignoring those which don’t. Even so, you can enter a credibility danger zone if the facts you cite don’t, on inspection and correlation with facts you ignore, support your opinion. Then your opinion is unsupported and becomes subject to the laws of intellectual gravity, just as Newton’s apple fell to earth as proof of the laws of physical gravity. Case in point: a recent op-ed in one of Vermont’s better-known weeklies, wherein the editor argues that yes, Vermont spends more, per-pupil, than most other States in public education, but (advertising slogan) “we’re worth it.” Identifications are redacted as a professional courtesy.

“Products that have a high value cost money,” writes the editor, referring to the K-12 product in Vermont and citing the 2009 per-pupil cost of $15, 175. “Pity the States at the bottom of the heap– Utah ($6,356), Idaho (($7,092), Arizona ($7,813), Oklahoma ($7,885), Tennessee ($7,897) and Mississippi ($8,075)…” he continues, arguing that these cheap States “…will likely have to increase per-pupil spending significantly if they are to offer their youth the best possible education”. Just like, he writes, Vermont as “the education State”. And, indeed, public-ed advocates in VT frequently cite the State as #1 or #2 nationwide as measured by Federal (NAEP) test scores. What they know but don’t cite are the unpleasant demographic/achievement-score truths underlying those scores: of the three major minority groups, two always post scores substantially lower than the third and the white majority, and most States (VT is a nearly unique exception in this respect) have substantial minority enrollments which therefore produce total averages noticeably lower than the one or two which don’t. All these achievement-by-demographic-cohort stats, for each State, are published in the annual National Digest of Educational Statistics, which you can request (usually no charge) from your favorite Congressional politician’s office. There you’ll find, for 4th grade reading, that statistically all-white VT posts a student test score of 229, while the US average for the white cohort is 230. And how “high value” is a 229 score? Hint: it’s less than halfway up the 0-500 score scale. When VT claims, on the basis of State total-enrollment averages, to have the best schools in the K-12 neighborhood, that’s because the overall K-12 neighborhood isn’t even middle-class (pun intended) achievement-wise. The “States at the bottom of the heap” spending-wise get there primarily via larger class sizes; Utah, for example, has an average class size twice that of Vermont’s and a cost-of-direct instruction therefore half as much per pupil.

All the others are similarly more efficient than VT, class-size and instruction-cost-wise, and, controlling for the test-score-depressing effect of their minority enrollments, they all post reading scores quite close to those of “the education State”. Here they are, for white 4th graders in 2007: ID 223, MS 208, TN 216, UT 221. These four average at 217, 12 below VT. That’s 5 percent. Their per-pupil spending is about 50% below VT’s. The four States post 8th grade reading proficiency percentages in the 3-out-of-10 range, meaning that in low-cost ID, MS, TN, and UT, seven out of ten students can’t function at grade level in reading. In high-cost VT the proficiency rate was 42%, meaning that almost six out of ten were sub-proficient in 8th grade reading. So VT’s proficiency advantage is one-out-of-ten. All States are required to get almost all students to “proficient” by 2014. None is even close. And all, even “the education State”, have protested that No-Child-Left-Behind-Law-of-2001 requirement and claim that they just won’t be able to do it. VT claims it’s an illegal, unfunded Federal mandate, which “the education State” could meet if it wanted to; it just needs a lot more money.

We’re left with the editor’s anti-gravitational opinion, unsupported by facts, that a. VT education is “quality”, as in admirable or higher-standard (in other circles, as reported in earlier columns, the favored adjective is “excellent”) and the contrast with the dismal “proficiency” stats, about the same in all States. We’re left with his assertion headlined thus “Ranking 5th in per pupil spending is good news” and no explanation for a spending level twice as large as that of the cheap States producing only a 5% difference in reading scores. A skeptic might well ask whether that’s “worth it”. And we’re left with this most curious opinion: “Vermont’s challenge is not to reduce spending, but rather to hold the current level…” and so on. Gloriosky, Zero, I’d have thought that the challenge ought to be one of teaching all the teachable students (a few aren’t) how to read, and how to master some of the basic skills or facts (like multiplication or the name of the first president) which it is the proclaimed (but not well-achieved) objective of the K-12 establishment to teach. And we’re left with this question, which the editor chooses not to address and your Humble Scribe knows not the answer: how can it be that a K-12 system which was the pride of the Nation and the envy of the First World only a few decades back (most of us are its reasonably literate and numerate products) now isn’t? What happened?