Writin’ What Ain’t So

by Martin Harris

In an earlier age (long ago, when the Grey Lady of 44th Street really did produce “All the News That’s Fit to Print”) stand-up commentator Will Rogers could accurately say “All I know is what I read in the papers.” Even earlier, author Mark Twain had opined that ”…it ain’t what you know that gets you in trouble; it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Your Humble Scribe would like to regain Rogers’ confidence, and therefore presumes to improve on Twain in two points: first, don’t use “ain’t”, even in fun; and second, in advice to writers, use the verb “write” instead of “know.” And, critically important, publishers should meet the Rogers standard and publish only what’s “fit to print” by fact-checking what op-ed writers assert. Here are two recent Vermont examples, both well-known authors writing on a subject both know well: public education. Both riff on the same well-known melodic phrase: the excellence of the Vermont product.

In a Vermont Digger 24 June commentary, Greg Guma asserts that “…Vermont’s educational system has received high marks for many years. It routinely ranks close to the top on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, came in third last year among States with a higher than 60% participation in SAT tests, and spends more per pupil than all but a few States as a percentage of per capita income.” In similar vein, school-superintendent-emeritus William Mathis asserts in a Rutland Herald 20 June commentary that “…achievement for all students has improved over the past 30 years…” Both writers are correctly credited with depth-of-knowledge in the subject they analyze –public education and its achievement-productivity– or they wouldn’t be recognized commentators, and therefore one must conclude that both know better than what they have chosen to assert, when the assertions themselves are so unavoidably contradicted by readily-available statistics.

The more egregious of the two (Humble Scribe opinion) is the Mathis assertion that “achievement has improved…” which is believeable only if you set aside Federal test scores (the only measurement-device covering the past 40-plus years) and substitute your own recently-conceived subjective and un-stated criteria. In contrast, the Guma assertion of “…close to the top on NAEP…” could be accepted as accurate by those readers who meet his expectation-of-ignorance and who therefore accept his definition of “top” as a comparison with all other States’ students, similarly in the low to mid 200’s in Reading and Math, because they’re blithely unaware (and he never states) that the NAEP scales are 0-to-500, meaning that all States are equally far from the top. For grey-haired readers of this column, it’s as if their long-ago teacher asserted that her favorite apple-bearing student who made 66 on a pop quiz was near the top because all his classmates, except one smart aleck who made 67, made 65 or less (out of a prefect 100). In those days, that drew a barely-passing D, which in turn drew parental disapproval. A similar presumption-of-reader-ignorance enables the Mathis claim that “…achievement has improved…” without explaining that Vermont has already commissioned two “tests” –first the NSRE, then the NECAP—precisely because they both seem to produce better “Proficiency” results than the educator-despised Federal NAEP, and is even now shopping for an even easier third “test”. It helps that these latter exams are in use in only a few nearby States, so nationwide comparisons are –regrettably, of course—no longer possible. The actual 40-year nationwide NAEP record, including Vermont, shows Reading and Math achievement-test scores very nearly level. Example: Grade 11 Reading, 285 in 1971, 286 in 2008. Read it for yourself in the 2010 National Digest of Educational Statistics, Table 124. Maybe the 1-point gain supports the edu-doctor’s assertion that “…achievement has improved…” Or maybe not. You decide.

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More interesting than the two authors’ rhetorical “cutie” (see Webster’s definition 2b) employment of fact-spin is the theoretical question of “why?” Your Humble Scribe offers herewith two theories, one military and one socio-economic.

The first comes from “The Art of War”, the 5th century BC Sun Tzu writings on military theory, in which can be found his argument that using deception to convince the opposition to surrender is the most economical path to control and victory. Sufficiently repeated, the confident assertion that “our schools are excellent” (even though they now produce graduates who are about 2/3 incapable of making an NAEP-based “Proficient” in Reading and Math), might eventually achieve doubters’ withdrawal. Example: the 40-year-long experiment in class size reduction, argued at the outset for achievement-improvement reasons, but now showing a 40-year record of non-accomplishment verified by both test scores and statistical studies. That history didn’t stop Dr. Mathis, on 7 Feb 07, from asserting in The Rutland Herald that “…small class sizes…improve student achievement…” even though he knew and knows better. In that same piece he raised a new argument, maybe (or maybe not) having already convinced some parents, that “…small classes…are requested by parents…” and both assertions are now used by K-12 educators, repetitively. Also in Sun Tzu is the avoid-opposition-strength argument, which explains why educators like Middlebury’s Gailer School Director Lonny Edwards would assert, in the 5 Apr 12 Addison Independent, to, in Wizard-of-Oz lingo, ‘pay no attention to that man behind the curtain’ and just ignore the poor NAEP achievement test scores because, he writes, “…there is no causal link from test scores…that shows what good teaching is…” and so on. It’s the our-students-can’t-read-well-but-they-are-quite-self-confident flanking maneuver.

The second comes from HS observation of gentry-Left social behavior, where acceptance in select circles now requires proclaimed admiration of Jackson Pollack paint-spatters and Andy Warhol soup-can labels as “art” and failure-to-proclaim produces exclusion. When John Holden was Vermont’s Ed Commissioner, district superintendents weren’t under pressure to conform to doctrine, as (HS suspicion) they now are under the Vilaseca tenure (he’s another of those “we-are excellent” proclaimers) and so maybe they just choose to “know what ain’t so”and to write thus in print, to keep both their jobs and their admission ticket to high-level education-in-politics-policy circles, whether as educator or Fourth Estater. Just consider the probability (or not) of a present-day Vermont Supervisory Union superintendent telling his Board and public that, yes, we have been demanding and getting class size reductions, but achievement scores haven’t risen as we promised while taxpayer cost have, and it’s time for us in K-12 to change course. Somewhere in the distant hills of the Northeast Kingdom there’s probably a Montpelier-owned-and-operated re-education camp for any such public education doctrinal apostates, and such is the pressure-to-conform in Vermont’s public education circles that it sits quite unused.