Education “Excellence”, as “Proven” by Assertion

by Martin Harris

Just recently, four of the “usual suspects” (a little Casablanca lingo, there) in public education have again spoken and written for instruction-of-the-public purposes on the excellence of the preK-K-12 enterprise. For a national audience, trade magazine School Planning & Management hosted a multi-page paean to pre-K “excellence”, while the Grey Lady of 43rd Street gave two column-feet to the same subject, with the same evaluation, as an instruction to Congress, and, from the Executive Branch’s Ed Secretary Arne Duncan came a proposal to expand Head Start down to 3-year-olds. For a Vermont, primarily Rutland Town, readership, the Rutland Herald expended trees, ink, and almost two column-feet for Superintendent Debra Taylor’s parental-patience Letter, offering grievously-disappointed-but-understanding-and-forgiving-if-repentance-is-forthcoming chastisement of budget no-voters with her assertions of ’’…our strong academic foundation”, using adjectives, phrases, and nouns like well-disciplined, excellence, achieve[ment] at high levels, and performing well above State averages to “thank you for your support” and “remember the school budget re-vote”, meaning change your erroneous recent no-vote to a now-I-understand yes.

The first three are interesting only in the rhetorical device they all use: present a few plus-facts and lots of assertions, ignore all minuses. None of the first three, while extolling the present pre-K operation, chooses even to recognize the most recent and definitive long-term evaluation of Head Start performance, published in December of 2012 by the Federal Department of health and Human Services, which followed 5000 low-Socio-Economic-Status Head Start enrollees and produced this conclusion: “There was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through Grade 3 between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group”. Such studies all through the 90’s and ‘00’s reached the same conclusion. Instead, there’s such language as (from the Ellen Kollie piece in SP&M) “…early childhood education significantly improves the scholastic success and educational attainments of poor children”. In the New York Times piece, Gail Collins writes that “…the Nation’s famed upward mobility has come to a screeching halt because poor kids…never catch up . Nobody has come up with a better idea for fixing the problem than Early Childhood Education”. And the Associated Press writer Philip Elliott writes that “… Secretary Duncan has been promoting Obama’s Early Childhood program…eventually for 3-year-olds.” With a 47-year history, it used to be called Head Start, but not recently, a tacit admission of past non-productivity, presumably maskable via name-change.

The fourth is much more interesting for facts-included and facts-excluded. In her description of the preK-K-12 Rutland Town school operation, Superintendent Taylor characterizes it as giving students “a strong academic foundation” and asserts that they have “…grown and progressed academically as measured by standardized and school assessments, performing well above the State average”. Quite true: on the NECAP tests, used by four New England States (and no others) Rutland Town’s students scored 75% Proficient + Advanced in Reading compared to a State average of 44% (2011 data). But knowingly incomplete: RT students, like all others in the US, have been taking the Federal NAEP tests since 1969, and the State Grade 8 Reading average (we aren’t permitted, by State Ed Dep’t policy, to see results by school) was 44% P + A for 2011. Sup’t Taylor mentions neither the NAEP tests which a statistically-selected sample of her students take, nor does she choose to explain why the same group of students doing comparatively well on the NECAP’s are part of the same universe of testees doing far worse on the NAEP’s, where more than half don’t make Proficient, meaning that they can’t function at Grade level in Reading. Could it be that the State-preferred NECAP’s are preferred precisely because they’re easier and designed to produce seemingly better stats? We don’t know. We do know (basic math) that 44% Proficient + Advanced means 56% which doesn’t have “a strong academic foundation”, a should-be-more-unnerving fact which Superintendent Taylor has chosen to ignore. On the full range of tests –Reading, Math, history, etc., at various grades, the NECAP’s consistently produce results markedly better than NAEP’s: averaging about 2/3 Proficient in-State while the NAEP’s always show about 2/3 of the same universe of testees to be less-than-Proficient. Nowhere, on neither the State website nor in the Superintendent’s Letter is this inconvenient pair-of-facts addressed. As isn’t the history of this Proficiency objective: before the social-promotion policies of the 60’s, all students made Proficient, as measured by State tests, up through the grades, or they repeated the failed grade (or, worse, endured mandatory summer school) until they did. There were typically, few retentions-in-grade. That now-discarded standard, then mostly achieved, was 100% Proficiency.

In that statistical context, Superintendent Taylor’s summation paragraph seems to be somewhat contradictory and/or illogical. In part, it reads: “students need a sound foundation to achieve. We are so proud of our Rutland Town students, faculty and staff,” and goes on to thank parents and taxpayers (presumably past yes-voters only) for their support. But, whether you use NECAP or NAEP achievement test scores, a very substantial fraction of her students, perhaps an actual majority, isn’t getting “a sound foundation” in Reading, as shown by these stats, and similarly in other essential disciplines as well. Is that a cause for pride? Or, to use a newly-coined (in the national political context) seven-word question for expression-of-concern: “Is this the best we can do?” Apparently yes: in a fourth vote, the (modestly reduced) budget passed.