The K-12 Producer-Consumer (non)Debate

by Martin Harris

As Fourth Estate journalists well know, and practice, because it builds readership or viewership, the use of the write-in Letter-to-the Editor or the call-in-Tweet to the commentator to counter-point with popular wisdom the official position on policy-as-news, works well. That’s even though, sometimes, the official position and the appropriate rebuttal show up in different papers. Case in point: earlier this month the nationwide and global Wall Street Journal printed a brief LttE from a 1961 graduate of the Highland Park, MI, public schools, and a few days later the local Rutland Herald printed a lengthy news piece on Vermont’s own K-12 system along with some revealing quotes from Ed Commissioner Armando Vilaseca. WSJ editors headed the LttE “The Once and Future Public Schools,” an American- and English-lit reference to a 1958 book “the Once and Future King” here based on a late-medieval history La Morte d’Arthur there of the pre-medieval English leader mythically involved with Saxon-invasion-prevention, the Holy Grail, and various precursors of the chivalric tradition, some few aspects of which survive to this day. The reference, known by WSJ editors, and enlightening to readers (and even Humble Scribe) of sufficient age who learned such nuggets of history and literature in their (our) own K-12 years when such were taught, and, like cursive writing and grammatical precision, aren’t taught any more, heightens the contrast between what K-12 once was and what it now is.

Highland Park is a fairly typical close-in (indeed, it and Hamtramck are completely surrounded by Detroit, thanks to urban annexation powers unknown in New England but widespread everywhere else) suburb which boomed in the 1910-1920 decade from 4,000 to 46,000, peaked at 53,000 in 1950, and has been shrinking ever since for all the usual reasons. It’s now down to 11,000 and, like most of Greater Detroit, is now the frequent site of recreational house-burnings. Its once-admired K-12 schools have just this year been taken over by State government. When LttE writer Lance Duvall MD attended in the 50’s, he now recalls that “,,,my teachers provided an educational experience equal to or better than any other in the nation at that time. I have been gratified to learn how many teachers, doctors, engineers, scientists, skilled tradesmen and successful business people have come from my class. Most of us came from blue-collar families.” His story is identical to that of most of our generation’s. In the years preceding and during Duvall’s public education, it was operated on the now-officially-despised “agrarian” (summers-off) schedule, with near 30 students in a class, and near-100% student achievement Proficiency because no one was promoted a grade without passing the previous grade’s May exams. There was near-0% classroom disruption because teachers controlled classrooms. Math, reading, and literature (think Morte d’Arthur) were taught then, as were now-vanished grammar and penmanship, and now-diluted history and geography. And all for about $2000 current-dollars annual per pupil cost (about $300 in nominal budget, then).

Now, budgets are up to $10,000 (VT is at $15) and class sizes are down to 15 (VT is at 10) while curriculum has been shrunk in some areas but expanded in some politically-correct others. Student Math and Reading Proficiency averages about 1/3 (2/3 non-Proficient) on the nationwide Federal tests, which explains why States like VT have bought easier tests showing supposedly higher Proficiency numbers. And now VT Ed Commissioner Armando Vilaseca blandly asserts in a Herald news interview that “Vermont has maintained high standards and a rigorous assessment of those standards,” while casually explaining why “,,,as we get closer to the 2014 NCLB requirement of 100% Proficiency, we will continue to see more schools not making Annual Yearly Progress…” (that’s ¾ of them, at last count) towards the learning objective which was taken for granted when Dr. Duvall and your Humble Scribe were in public school. Maybe the Commissioner and his hierarchy of edu-crats should contemplate what he and his have done to dismantle a once-admired system.

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The WSJ “Once and Future Schools” header applies to two LttE’s, one by Duvall and one by a Massachusetts parent: both argue that the “once” won’t be re-captured and the “future” will be found in quasi-public or non-public charter or alternative schools. And, indeed, when service-vendors like Vilaseca blithely talk past erstwhile service-purchasers/consumers like Duvall, the K-12 establishment shouldn’t pretend to be surprised as the latter vote, increasingly, to get the service elsewhere. Actual, they do less damage to the future of their institution with such “aren’t we simply excellent” assertions, than with such legal maneuvers as their attempts to suppress and prevent, not only charters and vouchers, but even home-schooling at the one-child level. They were humiliatingly discredited by the Vermont Supreme Court for their legal attempt to force Karen Maple’s child back into their “not-making-Annual-Yearly-Progress” (modern language) or ineffective-at-teaching-Reading (earlier language) classrooms in its 2000 decision exposing the State’s efforts, which went so far as jailing the offending parent for failure to submit; but no lesson was learned. As of this writing, the State is now seeking to enforce newly-invented (and unwritten) enrollment-date rules in a continuation of the same we-want-all-students campaign. Two better illustrations of a continuing service-vendor service-quality customer-relations fiasco would doubtless need invention for a Harvard Business School case study exercise.

It’s gotten to the point where even the editor of Middlebury’s Addison Independent, an ancient newspaper with relatively-new Left-leaning biases, uses the “good old days” as evidence. Here’s the quote from the 2 Aug edition: “…back in the 50’s and 60’s,…the nation had one of the best educational systems in the world,,,” and so on. Mr. Lynn goes on to deprecate the increase in income-inequality since then, but why would he choose not to deprecate the even-more- remarkable decline in K-12 productivity? He specifically mentions that economic indicator –productivity– as one of the reasons, then demonstrated in both public education and private enterprise, for the earlier (and then fairly new) middle-class prosperity. Humble Scribe guess: a mix of ideology and practicality. With maybe one Vermont-newspaper exception, Fourth Estaters don’t frequently focus their analytical skills on productivity declines in the public sector in general or public education in particular; nor do they wish to jeopardize revenues by discomfiting a predominantly Progressive subscriber base.