Vermonters for Better Education
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Such public debate is sorely lacking in Vermont. State Board meetings are so sparsely attended by the general public that anyone who does turn up is likely to be thanked personally by a Board member just for showing interest. Media coverage of the meetings is almost nonexistent.
Vermonters for Better Education (VBE) is a statewide nonprofit that wants to see this situation change. Organized to research education issues and disseminate information to policymakers and the public, this month VBE sent a special edition of their newsletter “Better Education” to five-thousand Vermonters around the state. The newsletter is intended to stimulate public debate.
Why Stir Things Up?
Vermont education is doing well by some yardsticks. Our average class size is the lowest in the nation. We fund education adequately; it’s estimated we rank tenth nationally in per pupil spending. And as the executive director of the Vermont-NEA commented in April, “Vermont teachers receive pay that, by comparison with wage earners on a statewide basis, ranks us fourth in the list of states.”
But it’s also true that we could save $560 per student if Vermont’s student/teacher ratio was equal to the national average. Is that a good idea, or at least worthy of discussion? The tax relief would certainly be welcome. Over the past three years the average family's education property tax has risen 8.4 percent - after prebates.
Are we getting our education dollar’s worth? Measured in terms of student performance, it’s hard to say.
Our statewide assessment tool, the New Standards Reference exam, doesn’t allow us to compare ourselves with other states. Vermont’s combined SAT scores are slightly below the national average, but comparisons are difficult because the percentage of students who take this test varies among states. On the National Assessment of Education Progress, specifically designed for making comparisons among states, Vermont’s proficiency scores fall just short of placing us in the top 25 percent nationally on each of the tests and grade levels for which data are available. This certainly seems worthy of discussion.
After raising issues such as these, the newsletter reviews four goals that VBE believes can help Vermont schools become the best in the country. These include more school choice, improved state standards, norm-referenced assessments, and promoting quality teaching.
School choice in Vermont is only available to those who live in one of 90 “tuitioning towns” that do not operate a public school, and starting next year, to half-a-dozen high school students in each school district. As for the rest, school choice is only available to those who can afford to move to a different school district or pay tuition on top of the education property tax. Public charter schools are not permitted.
This is unfortunate because highly regarded research shows that school choice leads to higher student achievement in participating schools without higher spending. Practical experience leads to the same conclusion. In the Rutland area, for example, high schools compete for students from nearby tuitioning towns. The former superintendent of Rutland schools remarked that area high schools “are of higher caliber at least in part due to the competition for students from tuition-paying towns.”
Rutland voters actually approved a measure to extend school choice to all area residents in 1996. But the measure requires legislative approval and our legislature has refused to act on it. Perhaps this will change now that the former superintendent of Rutland schools, David Wolk, is Vermont’s new Commissioner of Education.
Improved State Standards
In 1989 President Bush joined 50 US governors in stating that every American child should meet challenging academic standards by the year 2000. In 1990 the Business Roundtable adopted an education reform agenda which featured as its centerpiece a call for rigorous, measurable standards for what students in the United Sates should know and be able to do after completing high school.
The Vermont Department of Education responded in 1996 with the Vermont Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities, the statewide curriculum that Act 60 wrote into law. The Framework was derived from the New Standards Project, a branch of the National Center on Education and the Economy. Former Vermont Education Commissioner Richard Mills is on the Board of that organization.
Unfortunately, Vermont’s state standards have received failing grades from groups as disparate as the Fordham Foundation, Education Week, and the American Federation of Teachers. One might criticize the criteria and reasoning behind the poor grades, but who would dispute that our poor marks merit public discussion? The VBE newsletter calls for a thorough review of Vermont’s standards.
Performance on Vermont’s standards is assessed using the New Standards Reference Exam (NSRE). This is not a norm-referenced test with validated test items and rigorously objective scoring. And the test is only used in one other state and a few cities. So it’s not possible to use the NSRE to compare the performance of Vermont’s students with that of students elsewhere in the nation.
Scoring of the NSRE has been fraught with difficulties and delays. The company that publishes and scores our tests has agreed to a $628,000 refund and discount package to make up for a string of costly mistakes. This summer, the company put itself up for sale.
Other questions have been raised about the state’s handling of the test data. The state reports only the percentage of students that met or exceeded “the standard.” Actual test scores are withheld, as is other information such as how cut-offs for meeting and exceeding the standard are established and adjusted each year. Isn’t the public entitled to more information?
The VBE newsletter calls for objective, norm-referenced testing that allows for objective comparisons among schools and states. Critics may rightfully argue that these tests provide only limited information, but it’s the objective information we need if we are to hold our schools accountable.
Recent State Board of Education mandates will eventually lead to competency testing for new teachers in Vermont. Schools continue to rely on peer-review for assessing those already teaching. Both of these procedures merit ongoing public attention, but other issues are at least as important.
Consider for example, the educational background that each teacher brings to the classroom. How many of our high school math teachers majored in math? How about science and English teachers? Are continuing education credits being earned toward such degrees, or being awarded for less challenging courses?
If a professional contemplates a mid-life career change and wants to teach, what obstacles stand in the way? What if the person already has an advanced degree? Will the union let them accept an entry-level salary? Independent schools often hire individuals with diverse backgrounds and find that they’re exceptional teachers. But public schools in Vermont require an education degree or a time-consuming alternative certification process. Is this in our best interest? The VBE newsletter suggests we take another look.
People will differ on many of the issues raised here. But surely we
can all agree that the issues are worth discussing. In this spirit, VBE
hopes to perform a public service by promoting the debate.