Educational Excellence, from the Cheddarsphere to Chittenden County

by Martin Harris

Martin Harris

Because your scribe is neither a Wisconsin-ite by location nor a Progressive by ideology, he cheerfully concedes the intellectual high ground to those who claim it. Progressives are, as they patiently explain it to us dullards, the genetically-endowed naturally brighter 10% who have accepted the burden (English Progressive Rudyard Kipling called it “the white man’s burden”, but that’s a subject I’ll avoid by claiming a shortage of column-inches here) of governing us in the genetically-deprived dimmer 90%, so I have to envy the brainpower needed to invent the really sharp (my adjective) label of “the cheddarsphere” as shorthand for their Netroots communications “cloud” (not their word, originally) across the “uppity” (not their word, originally, either) and “blue” (not their word, originally, either) 30th State, where the motto is, not surprisingly given the early 20th century historical political-rehetoric overtones, “forward”. Now, the predominantly Progressive public-employee-educators of the cheddarsphere are on a “job action” (ya gotta envy the superior linguistic skills) for which they have closed their classrooms, called in sick, and claimed that it’s all “for the chilllldren”. I’m not as far over on the right-hand side of the IQ curve as they, and I just can’t grasp how a money argument (pensions and health care) proves that they “heart” (a little protest-poster-symbolism, there, and not theirs, originally) their students.

Your scribe isn’t a highly-skilled historian either. He remembers strikes by such unions as car-builders and railroaders, longshoremen and steel-workers, but no instance where, on the picket line, strikers proclaimed their love for, say, locomotives or blast-furnaces, and not one where they proclaimed their own excellence, as educators now do (Vermont references: State Education Commissioner Vilaseca, Rutland School Superintendent Moran) even though the actual stats tell a different story. None of the above industries demonstrates a 60% product-deficiency rate comparable to that shown public education in the Federal achievement tests scores, where about 2/3 of all public-school students can’t make “proficient” which means, basically, that they can’t function at grade level. It is their teachers’ job to get them to (at least) grade level. That’s what mine did for me and all my two-dozen-plus classmates, long ago, and they never once self-labelled as excellent, even though they were.

Nor is your scribe a highly-skilled statistician. Even so, he was (barely) able to turn to page 198 of the `2009 National Digest of Educational Statistics, where he found in Table 135 that only 45% of Wisconsin’s “excellent” teachers’ 4th graders were able to make “proficient” in math. In 2007, the 4th grade group (see Table 123) did even less well in reading at 37% proficient, and the 8th graders came in marginally lower at 34% (maybe that parental pre-K effort had worn off). How you rate a locomotive engineer who brings fewer than half his trains to their expected destination, or, in achievement test terms, scores about 250 out of 500? Part of the school solution is to self-label as excellent, professionals who “heart” their students and “make a difference”, at least for about a third of their young charges. All these assertions showed up on posters in the Wisconsin State House rotunda.

Another part is to purchase, deploy, and publicize the better “results” from easier tests. All States except Nebraska do this. Some, like Vermont, have been through several different tests in the search for the one which will produce the seemingly-best student scores.

And the third part is to change the subject, directing classroom investment, time, and teacher energy investment away from the dull and repetitive (for adults) basics of reading and counting, which haven’t changed much, except for the symbol-sets, in the last 5000 years, and towards such newer and more interesting (for adults) subjects as paper v. plastic when shopping, variations of marriage, diversity in the classroom, and, of course modes of governance and transfer payments. An instructor can’t mold young minds as much, just teaching them to handle letters and numbers, as he/she/? can by introducing them to the really important stuff: wealth and power through social engineering. It’s there that one can really “make a difference”. It was that last which motivated Wisconsin teachers to bring their students with them to their State House job action. Official doctors’ medical excuses for the adults, extra credit and no quiz for a hands-on field trip for the minors. But (humble-scribe-opinion) it’s the next-to-last which will have the most definitive effect on public education wherever pursued. Case in point: the continuing educator fascination with socio-economic-integration in the classrooms of the Burlington School District.

Your scribe isn’t a highly-skilled investigative reporter, and was blissfully unaware until quite recently of the travels (your tax dollars at work) of Superintendent Jeanne Collins to The District of Columbia for an early summer “national consortium” on S-E school integration. On her blog she describes it thus: “SEI is a tool for increasing student achievement through ensuring demographically balanced schools”. The conference sponsor was The Century Foundation, which, on its present web page characterizes the Wisconsin State House situation as “a war on unions”. Its governance/education leanings are fun to read , but ultimately harmless in that adult viewers can evaluate and accept (or not) their arguments. More potentially harmful is an educator assertion that student achievement is improved by busing and mixing. Recent history furnishes rather different empirical evidence. More next week.

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