Consider this hypothetical: Youre in the pottery business, and its your task to take raw clay and shape it into reasonably well-detailed little chalices. Years ago you accomplished this with a fairly low production cost per unit and a fairly high output quality standard, but in recent years your unit costs have gone way up while your reject percentages failed to meet the standardhave likewise gone way up.
Presently, the federal agency which monitors chalice quality reports that 23 of your output doesnt meet the standard at various points along the production line, and therefore youve been prohibited from advertising your product as excellent any more.
All of that describes the postWWII history of public education, with the exception that the feds who monitor student achievement arent allowed to forbid educators from calling their students the product of high standards even though most of them arent. In fact educators arent even required to publish, locally, the federal test results, and have been encouraged to go out and buy their own tests, which seem to show a higher product quality. Heres a pair of examples:
One comes from Junius Canitri, president of the Vermont School Boards Association. Last Thursday he wrote an open letter to Vermont newspaper editors (see this weeks Letters to the Editor) in which he spoke glowingly of the achievement of our students, accomplishment in math and reading, and affording the high standard.
Canitri also wrote enthusiastically of Vermonts first-in-the-nation small-class-size pursuit (true) as if it were the proximate cause of high student achievement (false), and which, in fact, is disproven by the actual federal NAEP test numbers themselves, which predictably he chooses not to recite in his letter.
Here they are, for example, in the 4th grade reading category, for 2005: Vermont students, 227 out of a possible 500, US average 217, meaning that about 23 of both groups have shown that they cant make proficient, which equates to functioning at grade levels. Its worse when you look at the ethnic breakdown: Vermont as a statistically all-white state scores 227, but the U.S. white fourth grader average is 228. Not great, but a point better than Vermont. And yet Mr. Canitri describes Vermonts schools chalice output as excellent.
The other comes from Guy Darst, deputy editorial page editor emeritus for the Boston Globe, who wrote a similarly glowing description of Massachusetts schools chalice-output and argues that the Bay State should build on its educational success.
Lets go to the numbers, again, 2005 fourth grad reading: Massachusetts, 231, U.S. 217, or, racially, Massachusetts white students, 237, U.S. 228. Massachusetts didnt get much for its money ($11,681 per pupil in 2005, with 23 of its fourth graders unable to function at grade level, but it got marginally more than Vermont at $11,608 that same year.
Like Vermont, Massachusetts went out and purchased, deployed, and publicized the results of its own locally preferred test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, but explains it by asserting that, as proof of equal testing rigor, Massachusetts students usually do well on the NAEP. To Mr. Darst, it seems, fourth graders doing well means getting a 231 out of 500 and quietly ignoring a 67% chalice rejection rate. His adverbial choices go unchallenged.
Is it legitimate to compare students to clay vessels? Heck, the Old Testament had Jeremiah speaking thus of humans when he addressed the Kingdom of Judah, and the Apostle Paul did likewise in his Second Letter to the Corinthians.
Horace Mann, that worshiped mid-19th century advocate of free public education, spoke far more harshly when he wrote of educating little savages, but whatever you may think of such as Horace Mann or, later, John Dewey, the educator who argued that schools should minimize student individuality and maximize collective consciousness, at least schools in their times produced students most of whom could pass achievement tests. Excellent? Probably not, but a lot better, 3-R-wise, than todays.