K-12 in Vermont: Equitable, (yes) Expensive, (yes) Effective (no)

by Martin Harris

As reports go, it could have been a lot pricier and harder-to-read, but it was quite enough anyway. That’s the recently-published

Martin Harris

Picus Report, which was commissioned to re-assure the Golden Dome folks that their State-wide school property tax –starting with Act 60, and then son-of-60, Act 68– was equitable. At 299 pages it cost $300 grand, less than half a page and half a buck for every legal citizen (not counting illegal aliens) of the State. Its desired finding: school funding is indeed equitable. No more high-real-estate-wealth “rich towns” easily producing every-student-Proficient graduates, while the low-wealth towns –so unfairly– couldn’t afford to bring their own poor kids to more than 30% Proficiency. Now the State sets the Basic Education Per-Pupil annual amount, presently about $8 grand, which it collects from all towns and distributes to all school districts, and now “gold towns” pay in more than they get back while non-“gold towns” do just the reverse. But the Vermont average per-pupil spending isn’t $8 grand; it’s closer to $16 grand, and the Picus writers duly note that, in the well-chosen words of Rutland Herald headline writers, it’s “not cheap.” They don’t note, duly or otherwise,(as Golden Domer Olsen of Jamaica and Guv-wannabe Brock, both R’s, have) that “there’s no evidence to suggest that higher rates of per-pupil spending have resulted in higher levels of student achievement.”

Nor does it note the way easier in-state tests—first NSRE, now NECAP, soon perhaps Terra Nova or PAARC, have become part of the never-ending search for “tests” which produce higher scores than the now-despised federal NAEP tests, which explains why, just recently, students 70% of whom scored Proficient in reading under NECAP are the same young-folks as those 30-40% of whom scored Proficient under NAEP. Most important (non) note, in Humble Scribe opinion: if you accept the historical argument that rich-town kids once made Proficient while poor-town kids didn’t, then the Picus Report should have noted the accomplishment of leveling (and, of course “equity”) in achievement just as it duly noted leveling (“equity”) in spending, because now test scores and (non)Proficiency are pretty uniformly distributed across the State. A page on the SED website shows, in the 2009 NECAP test for grade 8 reading, for example, the free-lunch kids scoring at 260 while the paid-lunch kids came in at 277, (out of 500!) so the rich kids were 43% Proficient while the poor kids were 23% Proficient. In both groups, a clear majority didn’t make Proficient, are somewhat equally ill-served by the K-12 system in their inability to read at grade level. Since then, the NECAP test has been “improved” and now the kids make, we’re assured, 70% Proficient. NAEP hasn’t been “improved”; it still shows 30-40% non-Proficient. In not-too-ancient history, before a long list of modern “improvements” in reading and math instruction, it was very close to 100% Proficiency, rich and poor.

Since the all-our-programs-are-excellent-and-all-our-kids-are-proficient arguments are hard to make without displaying a sheepish grin, educators are falling back on Plan B: the tests are irrelevant. Here are two quotes, one from management and one from labor. From John Castle, RNESU Superintendent, we get “…The measurement system is fundamentally flawed…and our schools are better today than they’ve ever been” and from Randi Weingarten, AFT union boss, we get “…NCLB [testing] was simply a fixation on measurement and sanctions.” Recalling when Ford cars became “Fix-Or-Repair-Daily” and the company then re-focussed on “Quality is Job One”, the re-focus from “we’re-excellent-trust-us” should be “Reading is Job One.” A while back, the K-12 folks tried RIF –Reading is Fundamental—but dumped it because teaching mere reading is sooo boring for highly-skilled academics capable of much-higher-intellect pedagogy.

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Actually, the RIF initiative still exists, as a private-sector, donations-based organization, but without much K-12 connection any more. On the historical-fact-not-theory basis that teaching reading is so easy even parents can do it, RIF seeks volunteers to do the job where, for various reasons, parents and teachers can’t or won’t. Historically, parents did indeed pre-K their kids (until aggressively dissuaded from doing so by the K-12 experts in the ‘60’s) in basic reading, counting, and so on, a no-tax-money-involved labor-of-love job that became a tax-based-government-employee job through Head Start in that “War on Poverty” decade. HS continues to the present even though various studies (latest one is the 2011 report from the Department of Health and Human Services, summarized in the 8 November issue of Time Magazine as “not making much of a difference”) have reported on the vanishing of seeming gains by Grade 1, and more recent advocacies have shifted focus to the “stimulus” benefits of the jobs for adult staffers. Most recently, politicians in four States – Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, and Tennessee—have introduced legislation requiring the K-12 “experts” to abandon their “social-promotion” practices; not entirely, but critically at Grade 3: if adopted, it would mandate that third-graders be grade-level-Proficient, as measured by an end-of-school-year test, before advancing to Grade 4. A detailed article in the 13 February Wall Street Journal includes a chart of the 2001 reading test scores for (mostly-socially-promoted) grade 4 students nation-wide: only 25% can meet the Proficiency standard of the federal NAEP test. These embarrassing facts explain why all States except Nebraska have adopted their own, easier, reading tests. In VT, the results seem to show, not 2/3 to ¾ of students semi-illiterate, but rather 2/3 to ¾ of students “Proficient”. Really?

Such return to historical achievement-related promotion standards in more than a few States, is (Humble Scribe opinion) highly unlikely. Even where adopted, the K-12 establishment will most likely ignore it, as shown by the already-in-place minimum class-size regulations in two States: blue Vermont and red Tennessee. Both have adopted such minima and both are shown, in the annual National Digest of Educational Statistics reports, to have real p/t ratios far below levels the class-size mandates call for. In TN, for example, the State-wide p/t ratio is 15, even though TCA 0520-1-3 calls for averages of at least 20 in K-3, 25 in 4-6, and 30 in 7-12. In VT, per the SED “Class Size Policy Guidelines”, the minimum section size for all grade clusters is 14; for “general” courses in the 9-12 years 18, and optimum class sizes up to 25, and yet the State-wide p/t ratio is 11. In both States, school boards and administrators are well aware of their own numbers, and yet none of them seems to think that following State law is an acceptable practice.