The two challenges facing Vermont education that get the most attention are the inseparable issues of ever increasing financial costs and the questions about the actual quality of the education we are paying for. These problems, as real as they are, are merely symptoms of a far greater problem. The education system itself has been allowed to become complacent and confused about what it is doing or is supposed to be doing.
The past 10 or 15 years have seen a lot of action in the area of education. However, much of this action has not produced any progress; it has just been treading water or churning -- consuming resources and human energy to little avail. Too many decisions and policies have been made by legislative bodies and agencies that have no real knowledge or experience face to face with students in a classroom or on a practice field. Sometimes changes are made for the sake of change, not because change is needed -- sort of a "don’t just stand there, do something" mentality. Often changes are driven more by the economic interests of corporations who benefit from selling expensive programs, materials and services. The No Child Left Behind Act and the elaborate test programs that evolved from it fall into both these categories.
NCLB was not the brainchild of the education community. It came from the bureaucratic and political community. NCLB was based on a set of false premises: 1. No school was doing a good job. 2. All schools could and would advance in lockstep. 3. Each set of students that took the tests was assumed to be identical. In addition, scores were adjusted (skewed) to make allowances for income levels, ethnic background and race of individual students. It is no wonder why there is so much confusion about the results, the tests didn’t measure what they were supposed to measure.
Now we have a new program coming from Washington called the "Core Curriculum." This could be an excellent idea. What it does is to lay out a standardized model for a very rigorous and very traditional curriculum beginning with kindergarten and continuing through grade 12. The "Core" specifies what skills are expected to be mastered at each grade level. There is one "Core" for English language arts /literacy, including history and science. The other is for mathematics. To implement these "Cores" will require teachers to get serious about what they are doing and remember that learning and teaching are both intellectual processes. Many students, particularly older ones, will also have to get serious: put away the video game, sober up (?), and get the message that it’s complicated out there and a "feel good" education where we all float along together is not going to produce many skills that will make any employer want to
To get back to reality -- in true bureaucratic fashion the positive aspects of the "Core Curriculum" are going to be muddied by a new set of tests called the "Smarter Balanced Assessment Tests," which emanate from the "Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium." These tests are called "adaptive" tests because the test changes as each individual takes the test. When questions are answered correctly, the next questions become harder. When questions are answered incorrectly, the next questions become easier. They will be expensive to administer because they have to be taken on computers that not all schools have enough of, or which don’t handle the test program.
The "Consortium" is a little vague as to the expected costs of administration and services such as scoring. The Consortium will not provide these services.
States will either set up their own bureaucracy to do them, or procure them from a vendor in the private sector. State Secretary of Education Vileseca has publicly warned that these tests will be very costly for the local districts to implement.
Even more significant is the quote from the Superintendent of the Bennington-Rutland School Union which states that these tests have been pilot tested by New York and have "been shown to be a failure and a waste of money."
We should teach the Core Curriculum and opt out of the tests. The bureaucrats in Montpelier are not thinking. Instead of sorting out the good from the bad here, they are moving full speed ahead to put in place a completely suspect program.
"A failure and a waste of money" -- can’t wait to watch this play out.
Weiland Ross is a Banner columnist.