I’m sure you are familiar with the cautionary tale that circulates in various forms which involve a scenario in which an optimistic little boy is poking around a manure pile. When asked why he is doing this, the boy replies, "Well, with all this horsepoop, there has to be a pony someplace."
What makes this story especially relevant now is the Banner headline on Aug. 8 for the article about the 2013 No Child Left Behind test scores. The headline reads, sic., "Schools Improving, but slowly. 73 percent of schools in state fail NCLB yearly progress standard." The article goes on to point out that the 73 percent failure rate marks the second consecutive year that 73 percent failed. Only three county schools did achieve their required ‘Adequate Yearly Progress’ standard. They were the Sunderland, North Bennington Graded School and Woodford Hollow schools. (The reporter failed to mention Sunderland, but we will let this pass as a ‘sin of omission’).
It is a mind-boggling thought that this self-important little state has a 73 percent failure rate in any set of education tests. The spin-meisters at the Agency of Education routinely release claims that our schools are among the top five or 10 states in the country in achievement. We brag that we have a spectacularly good pupil to teacher ratio in our classrooms. Our education spending per pupil is normally the highest or second highest in the entire U.S.
We do not have any significant numbers of ethnic or racial minorities that seem to negatively affect test scores in more diverse states. Neither do we have the problems of rampant violence in our schools of the kind that in some places schools consider it a good day if no student is killed or badly beaten by a "classmate." We truly have it made in the sense of having an education environment which few, if any, states can approach.
So, where is the pony? The education establishment so far has done what they always do when the reality of the situation becomes clearer. They imitate the squid and cloud the waters with ink. Their defense is to resort to jargon and confuse questioners with initials and verbiage that most of us have to read twice to find if there is a message here. Pop Quiz: can you put words on NCLB, AYP, NAEP, NECAP and SBAC? Two out of five is good; five out of five is awesome!
One local leader blames the 73 percent failure rate on "a statistical error in goal setting". In other words, we would have passed if the bar was set lower. Education Secretary Vileseca resorted to the moldy oldie of referring to "poorer test results with economically disadvantaged students grouped into the free and reduced lunch program." He also pointed out that in 2015 we will change to a different test.
This new test, he says, will use technology to "provide a better and more robust way to gauge how schools are improving and target areas in need of focus." This technology, he says, will require increased spending at the state and local levels to upgrade their equipment.
Why do we need new technology to point out weak performance? Are the school principals and other education officials so stupid that they can’t figure out that if X-percent of their students did not do well in math there must be a problem to focus on in the math program? If our educational leaders are that unperceptive perhaps they should all apply for jobs at the golden arches and be replaced by people who can identify the obvious when they see it.
One member of the State Board of Education, William Mathis, in a more recent article put out a rosy picture of Vermont education by claiming that if "Vermont were an independent nation we would have tied for sixth and seventh in the world." He also blames our low scores on things such as a "wealth gap" which works against less affluent students, and also throws in some meaningless assessments of "ethnic gaps" that do not apply to Vermont.
None of this excuse making is convincing. The three schools that actually met their required goals in Bennington County are not normally among the towns that are listed first when the question of affluence is raised. Neither do they have any large number of ethnic minority children enrolled. Could it be that their success came about because they actually did their jobs at a professional level?
The excuse making and dissembling explanations have to stop. The public has to demand, and keep demanding, that the most expensive public school system in the country performs to the levels expected. Vermont is not an especially wealthy state. Vermonters in general are not especially affluent. The great majority of us are far from being in the 1 percent category that dominates the national economy. In spite of this, our citizens annually vote to spend the most money per pupil of any state. It is time that the managers of the manure pile produce some ponies.
Weiland Ross is a Banner columnist.