Four of a Kind Beats…Not Much

by Martin Harris

In the category of public-educator-language-which-longer-surprises falls the recent quote of Addison County Supervisory Union School Superintendent, Gail Conley, as follows: “We have a great program here and so we can possibly be competitive with everyone.” She’s referring to the Middlebury-area K-12 schools under her executive control, which spend up to $17 thousand per pupil annually, supposedly to bring their students to Proficiency in such essentials as Reading and Math, and then to introduce them to such subjects as civics, history, science, language, the arts, even sports, carpentry, cooking, and more (gardening is on the curriculum in some Vermont primary schools). Bringing students to essential Proficiency used to be a near-100% accomplishment in the years before social promotion replaced the May promotion-via-achievement tests, but no more; now, the State’s schools, in Grade 8 Reading for example, show only 40% at Proficient-and-above, in the 2009 Federal (NAEP) tests published on the State Ed Dep’t website. That means 60% aren’t Proficient in that educational-competency essential. For embarrassment-avoidance reasons, the SED doesn’t publish these NAEP scores by district or school on its website, but we can gauge from the far easier NECAP scores, which the NAEP does publish, that Middlebury isn’t much different from the State averages, test-wise. For example, students at the Mary Hogan Elementary Schools, also under Superintendent Conley’s executive control, showed 76% Proficient-and-above in the 2012 Grade 4 Reading test, quite close to the 76% for the ACSU average and 73% for the State average. But speculation on just how the same universe of students which scores about 2/3 Proficient on the State-selected and -preferred test can score only 1/3 Proficient on the older, universal (all US students take it) and more rigorous Federal test isn’t the purpose of this column. Instead, the purpose is to ask the (probably rhetorical) question: how does it happen that a recognized Vermont educator can blithely assert for a Fourth Estate interview (she was featured in a recent lengthy article in the Addison Independent) that “we have a great program here”? Poker-wise, is she bluffing?

The probable answer is that just such bland assertions of “we’re doing just wonderfully” have long been common currency in the information(?) -flow from Vermont edu-crats to Vermont parents and taxpayers. Here are three more:

From Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca, quoted in the 7 Jan 10 Rutland Herald: “…schools across Vermont can tout success with the majority of their students…”

From Rutland Superintendent Mary Moran, quoted in the 28 Oct 09 Rutland Herald: “…our excellent public and independent schools…”

From RNESU Superintendent-emeritus William Mathis, quoted in the 26 Aug 10 Addison Independent: “…the very high achievement of Vermont students…”

And a nifty extra from the Commissioner, quoted in the 29 April 10 Herald: “…I have seen first-hand how well our schools educate our students…”

In a different logical (?) vein from the above assertions-of-excellence are the assertions of tests-don’t matter. Here’s a typical pair, one national and one local:

From Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers President quoted in the 9 Feb 12 Wall Street Journal: “(testing) is a failed sanctions-based strategy…a fixation on measurement…”

From RNESU Superintendent John Castle, quoted in the 14 Apr 11 Addison Independent: “…our schools are not failing –they are better today than they have ever been. It’s important to see that we can’t solely judge the worth of our schools based on these (standardized tests)…” during an interview where the Commissioner was again quoted: “We have an outstanding education system…what we don’t want is for parents to lose faith in their schools,” he said.

That’s exactly what has been happening, as data from the National Center for Educational Statistics (yes, the same NCES as publishes annually the results of the despised NAEP student achievement tests) illustrate: private options now attract about 10% of the market (the age 5-17 cohort) some 5.5 million students compared to some 55 million in traditional K-12. Also with the Education Department is the Office of Non-Public Education: its commentary on the rapid growth in home-schooling is worth quoting here, for its possible applicability to the growth in private-schooling, where participation is now approaching the 2 million level, from 1 million as recently as 2002:

“…the three reasons selected by parents of more than two-thirds of students were concern about the school environment (83%); to provide religious or moral instruction (83%); and dissatisfaction with the academic instruction available at other schools.” It’s that third category which most visibly shows up in both the NAEP, and, to a lesser extent by design, the NECAP achievement test scores. The report title is Private School Universe Study, 2009-10. Its general findings show up specifically in the public-ed enrollment decline in Superintendent Conley’s district, with the Middle School shrinking from 343 in 2003 to 234 by 20`6, and the High School shrinking from 742 to 545 over the same 14 years. Two possible causes: one is out-of-State migration by families with school-age children, in response to the well-known high cost-of-stay and low job- opportunity economic landscape in Vermont; the other is parent selection of the local non-public options. Because the Vermont SED chooses not to publish non-public statistics (in contrast to most States, like Indiana, for example, which do) we don’t know enough about Superintendent Conley’s K-12 domain losing “market share” to comment intelligently on the relative importance of either. An Addison County SchoolFinder website shows five private schools and 6 public schools in the Middlebury area, but no enrollment-level trends.

As for the four-of-a-kind claims, every poker-player knows when to see the bet and call the bluff. It’s beginning to happen.

One thought on “Four of a Kind Beats…Not Much

  1. Humble Scribe apology for unclear sentence construction in the third-from-last graf discussing home-schooling: the increase from 1M to 2M refers to students in home-schooling, not private-schooling.

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