In the Class, Size Matters. In the Office, I.Q. Matters

by Martin Harris 

Martin Harris

If you still think that the taxpayer-funded public sector is willing and eager to make its workings visible to those (us) taxpayers, you probably learned your civics in a class near 30 or so seated, engaged and non-disruptively, in rows of seats and desks nailed to the door, six rows, six deep, a few seats in the back vacant. Not so any more, and not just for the mobile furniture. The info-withhold is done discreetly: now, Town officers claim they “don’t know” their own tax rate, school administrators “don’t know” their own buildings’ capacities, the State Ed Department now publishes Federal student achievement test scores (for a long time, it didn’t) but when you actually look them up, you find that you can have any NAEP test result you want provided you want grade 4 science. Reading and Math scores (which exist) for every school aren’t there.

That’s because, in Vermont and nation-wide, they’re dismal: typically in the low-to-mid-200’s out of 500, they show that the majority of tested students can’t make Proficient, which means, roughly, an inability to function at grade level. To avoid parent and taxpayer displeasure, all States except Nebraska have adopted their own, easier tests, so that, on Vermont’s NECAP for example, it would seem that the great majority of students are indeed proficient in reading and math. The NECAP has been mapped by the Feds against the NAEP: in grade 4 reading, a “Proficient” in VT equates to about 215 on the Federal scale, well below NAEP Proficient at 238. Similarly for grade 4 math: a NECAP Proficient equates to about 238 on the NAEP scale, well below Proficient at 249. You can see the graphs and maps on the NAEP page of the Federal education website. Only Massachusetts has a State test result showing its students, on average, make Proficient on the NAEP. This conscious deception matters because smaller classes were promised to produce better achievement results, and they haven’t. They’ve produced higher taxes. And that’s why the education establishment is sensitive on the whole class size subject. Example: Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary, in its Annual Report, says its average class size is 18; but, the school’s page on the SED website says the pupil-teacher ratio is about 11.

Typically, class size and p/t ratio are closer than that -when both full-time students and full-time teachers have the same number of “free” periods, they’re identical, but when teachers have more non-teaching time, the class size for those actually working goes up. When some students have more free time -study halls, recess, sometimes even art, music, or “clubs”, the average class size for the remainder goes down. You can try to learn what actual class sizes are by asking to see the school’s Master Schedule, but for at least the last 20 years administrators have been claiming they don’t have one. (Your Humble Scribe first encountered that tactic at the Vergennes Union High School when asked by some Board members to report on classroom utilization levels (how many students actually scheduled, per period, into all rooms set up for 25, into labs for 20, and so on) and the administration was then forced to produce it. Turned out the space utilization was down around 30-40% but the addition was built anyway because of claimed worsening over-crowding during a time of enrollment shrinkage. One can summarize thus: Class size matters, but not as much as student achievement results. If the 40-year-long experiment in class size reduction (by nearly 50%) had produced better scores, few taxpayers would begrudge the extra staffing costs. But the campaign hasn’t, and, worse, it has exposed edu-crat information-management behaviors which reflect poorly on their Integrity Quotient.

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All of the above is well-known in educational circles. It isn’t refuted; it’s just not recognized. Official rhetoric, from the Commissioner on down, continues to “take pride” in the lowest p/t ratio in the Nation. In the Guv’s just-published budget message, there’s not a word about the class-size/test-score-/per-pupil cost nexus, but there is a proposal for district consolidation to save $9 million (providing no surplus superintendents are replaced by several deputies) and of course there’s the usual denigration of “…class, blackboard, and pencil…” and applause for “…creativity and quality…” as if the now-abandoned and not-too-creative traditional methods of teaching reading and math didn’t produce “quality” in terms of nearly-100% student Proficiency (no grade-to-grade promotion without it) and today the non-Proficiency level on Federal tests show well below 50% of students as literate and numerate, the most basic job of public education. To address this shortfall, the edu-crats have adopted easier tests-first NSRE, now NECAP, soon something else-in an on-going search for the “test” which will show “Proficiency” even though un-earned. And the third policy area, after the class-size and test scores questions, is the pre-K subject. There too, the “we are excellent” line is used even though its users know better. It shows up, right alongside the Guv’s other party-line education-statements in his budget address, referencing more support for “…quality pre-K education…” as if such as program actually exists. It may, in certain private sector programs anecdotally praised but analytically as-yet un-studied; but it certainly doesn’t in the government Head Start model used by all State Education Departments, where the same Federal government which designed it now finds its much-touted student-improvement accomplishments to have mysteriously vanished by grades 1and 2.

Because these first three areas illustrating opacity-in-government are more educational than legal a related fourth probably falls into a different, quasi-legal, category. That’s the “myth of local control” referenced by the Guv both favorably and un- in his address, but most typically urged on local school boards by superintendents pushing the notion that even if they wished to, they have no authority to move their class size average upwards. As with the other three, there’s a never-spoken truth: yes, school directors can vote to direct the superintendent to change staffing patterns, not in mid-contract, but with the Reduction-in-Force clause useable at contract-renewal time. Such RIF’s are painful in small towns, and it’s easier for involved parties to claim they are legally proscribed from such actions. As with the other three, they (most of them, anyway) know better. Their management of supposedly-public information -we don’t know, we don’t have it, you won’t know, you can’t have it- reveal a management Integrity Quotient which, like their students’ test scores, is painfully below normal. It’s well addressed by the Eisenhower quote: “The supreme quality for leadership is Integrity. Without it, no real success is possible”.