“Stop Us Before We Opine Again”

by Martin Harris

Because Lewis Carroll had his Alice (in Wonderland) character opine that “a cat may look at a king” your Humble Scribe, an Amateur member of the Fourth Estate, can similarly presume to challenge his betters (the Professionals) when, as seems to be the case more frequently in recent years, their editorial opinions seem to reject widely-available facts. (Similar patterns in news reporting are beyond the scope of this op-ed.) Opinionating is, of course, a privilege of Scribes, Amateur or Professional, which explains why one Finley Peter Dunne, who began his newspaper career in Chicago in 1884 after graduating last in his class from high school (the curriculum and tests were more rigorous then than they are now, a subject to be examined below) and soon became an added-pay-incentive op-ed writer, from which seat he wrote about his profession’s duty to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” It’s a definition which has enabled Fourth Estate opinionators ever since to decide whom to comfort and whom to afflict. Sometimes we Amateurs can’t figure why the Professionals make the choices they do.

Case in point: the 17 July Rutland Herald “Building Trust” op-ed which complains about loss of public trust in a once-venerated institution and blames the phenomenon on a 2001 Federal law labeled No Child Left Behind which “,,,subjects schools to bizarre rules of accountability with regard to school progress. Principals can be blamed, even fired, if a school doesn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress…” toward the NCLB goal of nearly-all-students-Proficient (able to function at grade level in Math and Reading) by 2014. Historical irony: a half-century before NCLB, a very few students were indeed “left behind” and weren’t promoted to the next grade because their previous-grade test results showed that they hadn’t learned enough to earn promotion. Back then, as a result, Proficiency was, indeed, something nearly all students accomplished, and without Federal testing, intervention, or funding. From the start of American public education in the Horace Mann model –one grade-level with one content-level objective per classroom, widely adopted in the post-Civil War era– the strategy was to move students up through the grades and graduate them, Proficient in a range of subject from Reading and Math to History and Civics, by testing achievement, promoting those who had, and leaving-behind those very few who hadn’t. It worked, well, for a century and a half, and then, for reasons only those in charge during the ‘60’s could possibly explain, it was abandoned by the Professional Educators. Not that teaching to read and calculate is especially rigorous –there are only 36 symbols involved, and even parents can do the job if necessary—but by the end of that miserable-for-many-reasons decade rigorous reading and math instruction were pretty much gone and –no surprise—students weren’t (and still aren’t) passing the promotion tests, but they were (and still are) being promoted anyway. Now the Herald solemnly opines that such promotion-based-on-testing is “bizarre”, even though the new model produces, not near-100% Proficiency, but near-35%. But now everyone graduates, which explains why some grads can’t quite read their diplomas and, of those who have gone on to college, about a third take make-up courses there. The RH op-ed writers complain that “…if students did not succeed, teachers would be blamed…” and, yes, the Student-Who-Won’t-Learn shouldn’t be in the classroom, and shouldn’t be the teacher’s fault either, but educators’ job is to educate, and excuses like “nothing in our job description requires us to produce any specific level of student Proficiency” (used to explain the Vermont lawsuit against the Feds) are –HS opinion—remarkably more bizarre than using achievement tests to measure student achievement and teacher competence.

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Defenders of the post-‘60’s re-design of public education blame both family poverty and non-English-speaking (English-as-Second-Language, or ESL) students for their own failure to bring their students to test-readiness: but the historical stats show that poverty percentages and ESL levels were a lot higher in the immediate pre- and post-WWII years in what were then urban and even lower-middle-class suburban schools, and yet grade-to-grade and graduate Proficiency rates were much nearer 100% than they are today. Did I mention that class size was near 30 (higher in parochial schools) and annual per-pupil costs were less than $300 (today’s inflation-adjusted equivalent, about $2500) while near-100% Proficiency stats were being compiled? Even worse, seat-desk combinations were screwed to the floor in rows, 6 across and 6 deep, and the rear row was usually unoccupied. As for content, you can find, on the Web, Grade 8 graduation exams which would challenge the achievement of even the best of today’s Grade 12 grad’s. All of this history, RH op-ed writers may believe, is pretty much “down the Memory Hole” for their readers, and so they’re free to, in today’s ‘60’s-origin phraseology, present their “revisionist theory of history” with little fear of rebuttal or challenge. Readers of this op-ed are cautioned to avoid disappointment and refrain from quizzing their own children/students on the origins of either quote and the socio-political issues their authors sought to address. Hints: for quote 1 think the “1984” George Orwell novel; for quote 2 think the Trostky rebellion within Communism.

Similarly, down the Memory Hole, for RH op-ed writers, must be the upward trajectory of per-pupil spending; they blame “…politicians who refused to provide sufficient money for schools…” and failed to “…pass the taxes needed to make the schools actually serve the students better.” But you’ll find no mention in the Herald of the Vermont per-pupil budget at the start of the ‘60’s. It was $344, a tad lower than the US then-average of $375. Proficiency, thanks to testing-for-promotion, was near 100%. In today’s inflation-weakened dollars, $344 equates to $2530 in purchasing power; but the present VT per-pupil expenditure level is $17,447, while the US average is $10,826. Is it bizarre for the RH op-ed writers to assert that “sufficient money” wasn’t provided because politicians failed “…to pass the taxes…” or is it bizarre that a class-size reduction strategy (nationwide, it was 25.9 then and 15.3 now, and in Vermont it was 10.7 in 2008, the latest year reported in the National Digest of Educational Statistics) fails to win recognition in the op-ed? And reducing class size was solemnly promised by the professional educators to improve student achievement and raise test scores. Instead, it raised per-pupil-spending by raising staffing (which pays union dues and gets to vote for its own paycheck in the school budget). If the RH op-ed writers were and still are looking for “bizarre” and “blame”, maybe that’s it, because maybe they chose the wrong targets to comfort and to afflict.