In mid-October, the Rutland Herald reported that "Vermont's students are at the top of the class" in math, according to this year's federal NAEP tests of 4th and 8th graders, placing behind only New Hampshire and Massachusetts in numerical proficiency.
Education Commissioner Vilaseca was jubilant, calling his students well-performing-the same self-congratulatory wording quoted in the Herald as used by Rutland Superintendent Moran and Barstow School Principal Prescott.
What they curiously didn't mention was the percentage of their young charges actually scoring "proficient". That number is 51 percent. The other 49 percent didn't achieve the "ability to function at grade level" measure, and are less-than-proficient in math. When you add in the other disciplines -reading, science, history, and so on-the overall proficiency accomplishment of the public schools is in the 30 to 40 percent range.
If you, in the private sector, produced a product line at least half of which don't work as expected you'd experience customer dissatisfaction and lose market share in a hurry. The statistics show public education is losing market share to non-public alternatives, although surprisingly slowly, given a product-inadequacy rate of half in some disciplines, about 2/3 in others.
Just because your competitor across the stateline has an even higher unsatisfactory percentage won't help your sales, particularly when your cost of production is among the highest in the nation. Under those circumstances, maybe your best option is to advertise your output as "excellent", knowing it isn't, and hope your choice of language is convincing. That, I suppose, explains why so many public schools in Vermont (and other states as well) display the word "excellence" on their front-lawn bulletin board.
I also suppose that Vermont's educrats were deeply influenced by a youthful viewing of the 1965 movie "My Fair Lady", a remake of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion", the stageplay-to-movie version in which Professor Henry Higgins selects a forlorn specimen of the London underclass off the mean streets and raises her socio-economic status by teaching her to speak English properly.
"The French don't care what you do as long as you pronounce it correctly," the phonetics professor observes. Perhaps Higgins is the source for the official evaluation of Vermont public education; in Prescott's words, "It's great to see Vermont doing so well."
I'd say that the Higgins Principle enjoys remarkable currency amongst Vermont's public educators.
If your notion of "doing well" embraces a 51 percent proficiency rate in math, you can claim superiority to almost all other states; indeed, the 2007 National Digest of Educational Statistics showed the U.S. average for 4th grade math at 239 (out of a possible 500), compared to a Vermont average score of 246. That's 39 percent proficient, nationally, compared to 49 percent less than half) proficient in-state.
If you are careful not to mention the actual numerical proficiency rate in your public statements, you'll be equally carefully to avoid the NAEP stats for proficiency in ethnic grouping. The 2007 NDES shows the 4th grade reading results. Vermont, a statistically all-white state, came in at 229.
The U.S. white cohort average (not an overall total average typically depressed somewhat by lower minority scores) was 230. Adjusted for race, Vermont students aren't "top of the class" (using the Herald's language), but a point below the national average. Marginally better stats were posted in 8th grade science, wherein statistically-all-white Vermont came in at 162 (the U.S. white average was 159, the black average was 123). Virginia's white students scored better at 165.
Going similarly unmentionable by the commissioner and other Vermont educators are the annual per-pupil cost data, which, taken in conjunction with test scores, furnish an indicator of educational productivity.
The 2007 NDES reported that, for 2005, Vermont spent $12,783, when the U.S. average was $10,071 and Virginia, a State with better scores in some disciplines, spent $10,030. In contrast, previous Vermont Commissioner Richard Cate took considerable verbal pride in both Vermont low class size and high annual per-pupil spending; he explained that policy factors were responsible for Vermont's impressive test scores and that-like the shampoo-purchasing lady in the advertisement-we're worth it.
The Rutland Herald put the Higgins gloss on it: In an Oct. 16 editorial, the editors assert that "Vermont's high test rankings" show that the "low student-teacher ratio is good for students but hard on taxpayers" without ever mentioning Utah, which has the highest p/t ratio in the nation (22 compared to Vermont's 11) has roughly half the per-pupil spending cost as a result, and whose students came in at 262 for 8th grade reading, 1 point above the 261 U.S. average, and 11 points below the 273 Vermont average, but at half the Vermont cost.
All these mid-200s scores are about half of the possible 500, which explains why all the proficiency percentages cluster in the 30-to-40 range, meaning that a clear majority of students-U.S., Vermont and Utah-can't read well enough to even make proficient. Sometimes it's politically expedient to pronounce correctly, but not to recite the stats.
As for the obvious educator objective-that is, bringing most of their students to "proficiency"-some Vermont officials have been claiming that actually getting students literate and numerate isn't in their job description.
Retired Vermont school architect Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.