For K-12, Proficiency Is(n’t) Job One; It Should Be

by Martin Harris

For 17 years, the venerable Ford Motor Company attempted to re-establish lost buyer confidence with the corporate slogan “Quality is Job One”, adopted after some disastrous forays into electronic ignitions in the ‘70’s gave rise to the dismayed-driver acronym for Ford: Found On Road, Dead. From 1981 to 1998, Ford struggled at, and eventually succeeded in, regaining its credibility, which, interestingly, it never lost with one sector of its customer base: pick-up drivers. The reputational damage done elsewhere finally repaired, the new slogan became a much more vague and less precise “Better Ideas, Driven by You”.

There’s a number of lessons, and one interesting parallel, in a different sector of the socio-economic-political spectrum: public education. Like Ford, it earned and enjoyed a place of honor and respect all through the first half, and more, of the 20th century: then, the American K-12 system(s), particularly its urban schools, were envied and applauded Western-world-wide for succeeding at creating high literacy, numeracy, and civic-responsibility levels amongst huge numbers of new students leaving domestic agriculture or entering from foreign in-migration. Student “deficiencies” often cited today as obstacles –weakness in language or family wealth– didn’t prevent pre-60’s teachers from bringing their mostly low-income students to high levels of (using today’s label, but better than today, if you peruse the Gr. 8 graduation tests then used) “Proficiency” in the basics, even though most students never got beyond Grade 8 before job-seeking. Classes were large, per-pupil costs were small (by today’s standards); discipline was rigorous, social promotion was absent, and amenities (think air-conditioning, school buses and free meals) were few. But then, like Ford, it lost its way in the last half of the 20th century. Unlike Ford, it didn’t choose to re-adopt its basic mission: all- students-proficient-in-the-basics, just like all-road-trips-successful-in-completion. And, like Ford’s ever-loyal F-150 owners, some district parents and taxpayers are still supportive. Case in point: the Mary Hogan Elementary School in Middlebury, Vermont.

For MH students, Proficiency in Math and Reading (the basics) isn’t a nearly-100% probability, as it was in the years before social promotion, when passing the May exams in, say, Grade 3 was the only gateway to Grade 4; today it’s only a 76% probability using State-preferred (easier) NECAP test results as the measure, a 41% probability using the far older and more rigorous Federal NAEP tests. Could Ford sell vehicles with either a 24% or, worse, a 59% probability of transportation-event failure? If GM and Chrysler-Dodge offered no better, maybe so, which perhaps explains why MH scores are at just about the State averages for NECAP (the “higher” scores are published on the State Ed Dep’t website) and therefore probably (the lower NAEP scores aren’t so published) and yet MH parents and taxpayers remain loyal. Twenty of them turned out to vote unanimously for the new budget, an increase of 4.5%, the local newspaper reports.

In the annual meeting, the far-less-than-100% Math and Reading achievement scores (Federal law requires near-100% student Proficiency by next year, which explains why school administrators despise the No-Child-Left-Behind legislation of 2001) apparently weren’t discussed, and instead, some part of the hour-long meeting was devoted to administrators’ plans to, among other things, “…integrate engineering concepts…” into the curriculum. Really? For students who mostly (59% by Federal measure) can’t read and count at grade level? For the Mary Hogan School, student Proficiency isn’t Job One, apparently, but an unquantifiable (by intent?) curricular diversion-foray into such intellectual diversities as “engineering-for-primary-school-students-who-can’t-read-well” is? Apparently so; Vermont papers report frequently on schools which now include gardening (grammatical rules and sentence structure not included) as part of the school day curriculum, as opposed to such dessert-after-broccoli after-school activities as stamp-collecting and model-making clubs, only for those of our generation who qualified by virtue of good grades in the basics, first. Interestingly, private academies here in Middle Appalachia advertise their Proficiency is Job One focus in their adoption of a “classic curriculum” wherein the basics of, first-and-foremost, reading and math, then and-only-then civics, science, history, geography, sometimes language, and so on are prioritized and delineated.

That clear definition of mission objective (a little mil-sci lingo, there) explains how such tuition-charging academies are able to capture a substantial fraction of potential market share (a little advertising lingo, there) typically over the intense political objection, anti-choice, anti-voucher, of the local and State public school establishment. Because they don’t use the Federal tests, we don’t have scores; but administrators argue that other tests (SAT, for example) verify the Proficiency success of their Proficiency is Job One unspoken (Ford still owns it) slogan. And parents are still, but maybe not for much longer, willing to pay twice: once for the public schools they don’t use, once for the private ones they do.

As for the absence of adult interest in Proficiency (NCLB deadlines notwithstanding) in public school systems, the State numbers are instructive. For VT, the 2011 Gr. 4 all-students Reading average was 227; for TN, it was 220 (out of a possible 500), so the VT Proficiency percentage was 41, and the TN percentage was 26. Comparing 92%-white VT with the 68% white TN cohort, the numbers are higher but parallel: VT, 53% Proficient or above; TN, 37%. In both States (and in all the others –the national Gr. 4 average was 220, not substantially different from the 217 in 1992) the public schools are nowhere near the Proficiency is Job One, near 100% Proficiency results they typically achieved earlier in the 20th century.

For reasons why 21st century the public-sector mostly competition-immune education bureaucracy won’t adopt its version of the old Ford slogan, bring almost all its students to Proficient, and regain customer confidence as the private-sector entirely competition-vulnerable corporation famously did, there’s a range of explanations and/or excuses. You decide.