Separated by some 850 miles are two high schools, each in the foothills of a different region of the Appalachian Mountain range.
One school is a nominally-private academy in Manchester, Vt. It accepts, on tuition (in fact depends for survival on them) the 91 percent of its student body which has transferred in from local public grade schools in the surrounding, mostly intra-county, area.
The other school is a typical public high school in Erwin, Tenn. It receives its students from the surrounding intra-county area also. Nearby hill color differentiation (one called the Green Mountains the other called the Blue Ridge) and latitudinal separation notwithstanding (7 degrees, Burr & Burton Academy at about 43 degrees N and Unicoi County HS at about 36 degrees N) the two schools aren't much different in their student bodies-small-town teenage Americans-or their achievement levels or their racial make-up. Where they differ, markedly, is in their governance.
One, in the county named in the English language for 18th century New Hampshire land-grantor Benning Wentworth, has just raised its tuition charges 6 percent, more than twice the less-than-3 percent statewide school budget increase. No mention in the various news accounts of student achievement or the productivity trends at BBA. Related factoids: from the 2008 National Digest of Educational Statistics, you can read that average pupil-teacher ratio in Vermont is 1-to-10.8 and annual per-pupil cost $13.5K.
The other, in the county named in the Cherokee language for the nearby sometimes-called-smoky mountain-top haze, has just petitioned Tennessee state government for higher K-12 academic standards. No mention in the various news accounts of any (beyond the basic inflation rate) budget change. Related factoids: NDES Table 66 shows the TN p/t ratio at 1-to-15.7 and Table 182 shows the annual per-pupil cost at $7.7K.
Like Bennington County and all of Vermont, Unicoi County, Tenn., is, at 98 percent, statistically all white for NDES purposes, which shows in Table 121 that the U.S. fourth grade average reading score is 220 overall and 230 for whites (out of 500) with Vermont at 228 (229w) and Tennessee at 216 (224w)
while Utah, with the largest p/t ratio in the nation at 1-to-22.1, and a resulting annual per-pupil cost of $6.7K, comes in at 221 (226w). The "proficiency" percentages by race aren't shown, but all are well below 50 percent and at about 30% when you do your own adjustment. For example, the Vermont (w) average score is a point or two below the US(w) average, but the Vermont total at 41 percent "proficient" with a score of 228 is 9 points above the US total at 32 percent "proficient" with a score of 220.
The NDES doesn't show 8th grade reading breakdowns for smaller schools like BBA or UHS, nor does it show breakdowns by race, but the overall State scores come in at 261 for the US, 273 for VT, 259 for TN, and a very-interesting 282 for UT. Clearly, the typical educrat small-classes-produce-better-achievement argument isn't working too well in the "Industry" or "Beehive" State, which also posts the highest "proficiency" number at 42 percent and at the lowest annual-per-pupil cost.
At the state level, there's another similarity: both Vermont and Tennessee have been sufficiently uncomfortable with their students' scores on the Federal NAEP tests, which are "free", that they've gone out into the publishing market to purchase and deploy and publicize the 'results' from, easier tests which are sold on the promise that students will show better scores: NECAP for Vermont, TCAP for Tennessee. But there the similarity ends, at least at the county level. Consider, for example, how the local governance of high school education in Bennington County has chosen a quite-different focus of attention than those similarly entrusted in Unicoi County.
If you accept the proposal that BBA is probably pretty typical of Vermont's schools, and UHS equally so in Tennessee, then maybe you'll accept the printed fact that they reflect an achievement difference of only 5 points out of 229 or a near-statistically-insignificant 2 percent. With such similarity at the student level, whence cometh the vast difference in governance focus? That the BBA Trustees are pursuing more money, while the UHS Commissioners are pursuing more achievement, is obvious; but the underlying why isn't.
It's tempting to argue that east-of-the-Appalachians Vermont is in general more gentrified by suburbanite in-migration than west-of-the-Appalachians Tennessee; and that Bennington County in Vermont is even more so, with Unicoi County even less so, and then drawing the usual Jeffersonian conclusions therefrom. Or maybe there's another reason. I report, you opine.
Former Vermont architect Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.