Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Vermont: A Leader in Public Education

We ask for leadership from Washington that celebrates the glories 
of what we can accomplish rather than unrelenting dirges.

I am going to send this post to the two candidates for state superintendent of public instruction - Chris Reykdal and Erin Jones - and ask them some questions about it.

From Diane Ravitch:
Vermont is the smartest state in the nation. Not because of test scores, but because the officials in charge of education actually care about children and about education. When they look at the state’s children, they see children with names and faces, not just data. When they think about their schools, they see them as places where children should experience the excitement and joy of learning.

Vermont did not apply for a Race to the Top grant, meaning that it never was compelled to adopt Arne Duncan’s ideas about how to reform schools (which he failed to do when he was superintendent in Chicago).

Vermont never enacted charter school legislation. Vermont has its own kind of school choice program. If a district or town does not offer a public elementary or high school, students may receive a voucher to attend a private (non-religious) school. Such vouchers (called “town tuitioning”) are available only when there are no public schools available.

Vermont education officials think for themselves. Read their brilliant letter to Secretary of Education John King, advocate of high-stakes testing and privatization of public schools, about the inadequacies of ESSA and his proposed regulations.
From the letter (partial and bold mine):

Our Board is proud to represent a state where the people support a strong state funding system, enjoy schools that foster high student performance and register narrow equity gaps as compared with the nation. Nevertheless, the opportunity gap is our most pressing concern and is the number one goal in our strategic plan.
With these traditions and values in mind, we have strong concerns and reservations about ESSA. Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools. With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test scores gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of the schools.

We share comments on several specific elements of law and rule:
By requiring that test scores in two subjects and graduation rates be given preferential weight, we discourage schools from supporting truly broad opportunities to learn and the skills necessary for a healthy society.

It is just as clear that these neediest of schools feel the pressures and censure of accountability most acutely. We also know these schools are most likely to narrow their focus to the subset of learning that matters most for accountability purposes. This creates a hidden equity gap as students in our least affluent schools are the most likely to suffer from a narrowed curriculum. The result of this approach is the segregation of our schools into rich and varied programs for some and narrow, restricted education for the less fortunate.

While we appreciate your nod toward the humanities, these words ring hollow when faced with an underfunded system which punishes based on basic skills test scores. Unless our programs are adequately supported, they will neither close the opportunity gap nor build a better society or a stronger nation.

Summative Labels.  But the proposed federal rules propose combining all measures into a single score. The result is an invalid measure with a false precision claiming to be transparent. Schools and students have many purposes which cannot be validly measured so simplistically.

For understandable reasons, the federal government places a greater emphasis on empirical measures which can be computerized, averaged, and garnished with an elegant display of admirable psychometric properties. Limiting our vision to scalable attributes, risks the danger of not measuring valuable and important school factors. Thus, a narrow fealty to statistical rules ensures that the single score is an invalid measure. For instance, it gives us no hint as to whether our graduates will be productive citizens contributing to the common good.

Lock-Stepping/Lack of flexibility
.  The statute places undue emphasis on students graduating on time. And, ESSA still requires all students to take the grade-level tests. Any parent of two or more children knows that children are not inter-changeable. Some students need more time, greater support and more resources to reach the same goal. Our task is to meet our children where they are, and move them to where they need to be.

According to ESSA, test scores must be disaggregated by schools by demographic groups. This is often referred to as “shining a light” on a problem. It is pointless, even harmful, if this illumination is not accompanied by adequate resources and programs to resolve the inequities. The federal government has never matched their requirements with the money. It is time to quit blaming the victims of our neglect.

Disaggregation. Disaggregated data only becomes valid and sensible for very large schools and districts. Introducing solutions that aggregate data across grade levels and across schools interjects noise in the system, and fails to control for “third variables.” Thus, in most cases, we cannot validly and fairly attach high stakes consequences to these models. Instead, we urge statements from you on the proper use and limitations of data so as to guide continuous improvement rather than simply making summative pronouncements.

Cut scores.  Because of our very small schools, collecting and analyzing data using more sophisticated statistical methods is foreclosed. We are interested in growth over time and this is best measured through the use of continuous scale scores rather than cut scores.

The logic of ESSA is the same as NCLB. It is to identify “low performing schools.” Its operating theory is pressuring schools in the belief that the fear of punishment will improve student learning. It assumes poor achievement is a function of poor will. If we learned anything from NCLB, it is that that system does not work. It did not narrow gaps and did not lead to meaningful improvements in learning. If ESSA is similarly restrictive, we can expect no better.

We take note of the $1.3 billion budget cut approved by the House Appropriations Committee. While you have recently called for a broader “well-rounded” education, you suggest that these initiatives be paid for out of the funds that were just slashed. The federal government is ill- credentialed to call on more from states while providing less.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if Vermont allows districts to have HC programs that identify more than 10 percent of its students from a similar demographic that largely excludes Black, Hispanic, Native American, FRL and ELL students, and then puts the opt-ins into a segregated, self-contained program.

I wonder if they have neighborhood schools that perpetuate past housing pattern discrimination and current income inequality into the classroom.

I wonder if they allow parents to donate huge sums of money to their own child's school, including the funding of staff positions, and who then give the hand to a local researcher who wants to evaluate its role in state and district financing in the context of equity.

I assume Diane Ravitch would be appalled by these practices, which are largely supported by Melissa and the loudest readers on this blog. Enough of the hypocrisy.


Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

Come to think of it, in the spirit Tip O'Neill, make the political local and ask Chris Reydal and Erin Jones what they think of these SPS practices. Their opinion about Vermont isn't nearly so pressing.


Melissa Westbrook said...

FWIW, you clearly have a bone to pick with me but you should not make statements that are not true.

I don't even think your first paragraph makes sense so no comment.

I DON'T support nor have I ever supported PTAs paying for FTEs. (And I know you love to do research so do go check my testimony thru the years on this subject. Over and over, I say no.)

And if you know a way to a district can change housing patterns,let us know. Because this district DID try busing and it was massively unpopular.

I do know Diane and she and I get along fine. No two activists or parents or researchers ever agree on everything but as you may note, I write about or quote Diane over and over.

Lastly, I would never take advice from someone who can't sign their own name.

Anonymous said...

You're kidding, right? Demographically, Vermont is maybe 95% white. Vermont also has no state mandates for gifted programming or funding.

Parent petition from 4 years ago (not sure if anything has since changed):

-googled it

Anonymous said...

Vermont is full of small schools that try to meet students where they are and take them where they need to be. In a school that actually manages to provide that for each student, separate "gifted education" is irrelevant; the school will give gifted students what they need the same as it does for all the other students. I have no idea what actually goes on in schools in Vermont but their general plan doesn't seem to require any separate "gifted education".

I will also note that the HCC programs in Seattle provide what they provide; for some of the students, it is what they need; for other students, it is *not* what they need, but some of them stay anyway because they think it is less disappointing than their other options, and some of them *do* leave the programs. There are lots of things that (all kinds of) students in Seattle need, that the schools don't or can't provide.


Melissa Westbrook said...

Well, that Vermont, despite its demographics says that closing the gap is the most important thing they do speaks well for them.

I'm not passing approval on their entire system (which I don't know much about.) It's their ownership of their state's children and pushback against ESSA that I applaud.

I would like this thread to NOT be about gifted programming.

z said...

I would like this thread to NOT be about gifted programming.

No kidding. FWIW is so focused on their own petty little BS world, that they missed the brilliance of that letter. That is one of the best statements I've seen from an educational body in a long time. They really tell it like it is. It takes guts to officially stand up to the Feds on something like this, in a very public way.

One other note from their document: Further, Vermont has limited racial and linguistic diversity. Because of the relatively small number of students of color in most of our schools, we will not be able to report subgroup data in most schools by race and ethnicity.

Clearly they do not have the same issues of race and equity that we do here in Seattle.

Anonymous said...

It's not about you, Melissa. Given that you were in the process of calling for the silencing of actual research about school funding, it seemed prudent to let your readers know what your history on the topic contained. The quick look at the blog search (hardly research) confirmed that you were not being up-front about your prior statements.

"Largely" means largely. You are against PTA funding for positions, but you deny saying that schools should share PTA funding, after you said they should. What's
disgraceful, however, was your support of the attempt to interrupt research into PTA funding in public schools for fear that the schools with the largest funding might find it "divisive", even after you had called for such disclosure yourself (the back-pedalling was unconvincing).

Quoting Diane Ravitch and then supporting SPS policies that are the polar opposite of her agenda just goes beyond the pale after awhile. You can know Diane Ravitch and Rita
Green (or have once been a classmate of Malcolm X). It doesn't change the fact that you and this blog are almost always on the side of the elite and powerful in this district--whose support of programs and policies have real life negative impacts on students year after year.

My list was largely rhetorical. Given the coherent and intelligent letter from the Vermont education officials, however, there is little doubt that they would be appalled by what is going on in Seattle. It's the hypocrisy, folks. The same posters who are into "amen-ing" the anti-Charters and progressive quotes and clips are often the same ones holding on to the current (but not for long) HC model and PTA funding inequities: "Our Board is proud to represent a state where the people support a strong state funding system, enjoy schools that foster high student performance and register narrow equity gaps as compared with the nation. Nevertheless, the opportunity gap is our most pressing concern and is the number one goal in our strategic plan."

Hardly sounds like they would be for segregated HC and parent infusions of cash into staffing and services exclusively for their own children. They certainly have many FRL students in Vermont and some immigrant groups or they would not need to have the opportunity gap as their number one goal.

Sometimes you can only hold your nose for so long. What takes "guts" on the local level is doing the right thing, even though your own child may be benefitting from the current system in SPS that is anything but fair.


Anonymous said...

FWIW, what's your proposal? If PTA funding - which only happens to fill in the gaps left by the state legislature - is shared citywide, then parents will stop donating to their local school. That money doesn't get sent to Southeast Seattle. It just goes away. How is that useful?

You are so full of spite and jealousy that it blinds you to the real problems here. The enemy isn't the parent who donates $200 to their kid's school. The enemy is Bill Gates and the Boeing executives who refuse to pay what they owe to our schools so no parent has to open their wallet to ensure their child has a teacher or a nurse or school supplies.

Unite Already

Melissa Westbrook said...

FWIW is a sad person who cannot get people to his own blog and comes here to tear me down.

Does he have any real solutions? No, it's just about criticizing other people.

Ignore him; I'm going to from here on out.

Anonymous said...

Proposal: First, allow the PTA research to proceed to find what goes where. Second, I agree with the policies of Bellevue and Lake Washington (I believe these are the two there may be more) that don't allow the PTA money to fund school positions (and not just FTE like Charlie proposed, but any staffing position). Why do you think they decided to do that?

Also, there are now enough parents in this district who are into fairness and equity that they might vote for something like the Portland model. It would be a vote. Equity-minded parents are the majority in the district but are not the majority on this blog. Their voices need to be solicited and heard. The "take my ball and run" reaction is, once again, the typical response of those who feel that their privilege is being threatened. They came out with bells and whistles during the PTA discussion.

Calling me "spiteful" "sad" "full of jealously" "in a petty bs world" reminds me of an article I read several weeks ago about how Donald Trump calls anyone who disagrees with him or confronts him about his inconsistencies and policies "loser" or "hater".

It's much easier to go the ad hominem route than face the real injustices that are going on here and now.


Lynn said...


On that point, I believe I read that Vermont has the lowest student to teacher ratio in the nation. That would make differentiation in the classroom more effective.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

There are many ways to support a school financially, without contributing to a PTA. You can directly support a classroom by purchasing supplies, or a foundation can be created, separate from the PTA. If you look at the SPS grants page, you will see FTEs funded through the "John Hay Foundation" and the "Nathan Hale Foundation."



Anonymous said...

Of course, there are always the Cayman Islands.

It's not about the PTA but the ethics of certain
public schools getting significantly more than others.

Limiting the uses of the foundation money is likely also part of
Bellevue and Lake Washington policies. They had similar pushback and have
at least as many lawyer parents as SPS.

Those districts finally stepped in and said enough is enough.


Anonymous said...

FWIW has the uniquely sanctimonious attitude of enough already and does not appear to have any trouble with spelling.

Worth Zip

Anonymous said...

Bellevue specifically prohibits donors from paying for certificated teachers but not other staffing positions.


Worth Zip

Anonymous said...

Whoa Vermont's student teacher ratio is 9.4 to 1. Ours is over double that- 19.7 to 1. So many things are possible with smaller class sizes.


Anonymous said...

The tearing apart of the gifted program in my hometown is precisely why my parents sent me to a private high school. I could no longer get the challenge I needed in public schools. It remained that way for several years and sent many families fleeing the city leaving the public schools poorer. It is a state law to provide HCC services. For some kids that means separate schools.


Melissa Westbrook said...

ABC, good point but that also brings up the schools who DO have foundations supporting them. There's another source of money to shore up schools. I would suspect the bulk of the money there is for scholarships but I don't know.

Thanks for that WorthZip because sometimes people say things that are not fully-fleshed out (like Bellevue doesn't allow any staffing support from PTA.)

Anonymous said...

I wonder if it is really fair to say that Vermont doesn't have the demographic challenges that Seattle has? Burlington appears to have a very similar demographic distribution to Seattle. I looked that up because I was feeling a little sad that I wasn't at the Univ of Vermont rather than the UW. Dealing with the SPS district has scarred me for life.

That teacher ratio is interesting - does that hold true for Burlington as well? It looks to me like it runs about 10-13 to 1. Sweet. I have always felt that more teachers are the answer to our woes. Most of the particularly egregious policies developed by the SPS seem to revolve around handling student capacity with the fewest well trained teachers they can.


Anonymous said...

Seattle voters routinely pass property tax levies whose benefits disproportionately - and rightly - go to Title I schools. In other words, those PTA parents people are angry about are *already* giving their money equitably, through the BTA and FEL property taxes. But I notice those who criticize PTA funding of teaching positions still cannot answer how they would make up for the lost revenues - or how those teaching positions at those schools would be funded.

Until you can answer that, we can safely conclude your proposals are driven by spite, resentment, and petty jealousy, and do not deserve any further consideration.

Unite Alreadt

Anonymous said...

Sps parent, the report I read talked about the number of very small schools really bringing down the averages. I also had a twinge of wishing we had moved to Vermont. But one of Burlington's high schools (the one that is the basis for our honors for all experiment) is facing pretty normal urban district problems- coyrse cuts, an improper accounting scandal forcing the principal to take an elementary job...


I think urban districts are just hard, though i notice even with the "deep" cuts the high school in Burlington would feel pretty luxurious by sps standards. Can anyone point to a smoothly run, functional urban district?


Melissa Westbrook said...

Sleeper, that's a good question. In the lexicon of the school world, SPS is a mid-sized urban district; not LA or Chicago but more than say, Phoenix. (But Arizona is a strange place full of many differently-sized district. They have no one district in Phoenix for K-12 but their high school district is about 27,000 students.)

But a real "urban" district that does well? I'd be hard pressed to name one.

Anonymous said...

quote of the day: "winners focus on winning, losers focus on winners"

-Michael Phelps

Josh Hayes said...

Well, I was talking to my sister just a couple of days ago, and my nephew is doing a teaching certification program in Burlington and will be doing his internship there. So I'll be able to get some horse's-mouth input as the year goes on.

He does point out that even at the most diverse school, where he'll be, it's about 70% white kids, but Burlington also has a surprisingly large number of refugee families from middle-East strife, and for some reason, a fairly large Vietnamese-American community. So there's some language and ethnic diversity. I'll let you know if he has anything to report.

Anonymous said...

Googles it and others- White REALLY does NOT mean a unified group as far as class. Are you familiar with the studies from Standford & articles regarding the achievement gap and socioeconomics?


In Seattle I get it that many whites are middle class & affluent, but this is REALLY NOT the case in alot of our country. I suggest people who doubt this statement travel outside of Seattle to small towns & rural areas to understand the achievement gap that exists between "whites" (& others) of different economic classes. BTW even the term white is an issue in my book as it assumes a common experience between many different ethnicities. It has also been a contested and evolving term historically .

Anonymous said...

Josh--- P.S I am part Middle Eastern & N African & as such check the caucasian/white box. People with heritage from N Africa & the Middle East, malta, sicily, greece, are caucasian.

Josh Hayes said...

MT, you're quite right. Given the largely-rural character of much of Vermont, even the sprawling metropolis that is Burlington (/sarcasm) is probably going to have some town/gown/country divide, a WHOLE lot of income diversity, and so on. Like I say: I'm interested in how his stint there goes, but like most internships, his is only one semester. Just toes in the water.

Melissa Westbrook said...

MT, oh yes, I think those of us that grew up in more rural areas are quite aware that white is not the same economically all over this country. For whatever reason, some in Seattle seem to ignore that fact.

Anonymous said...

Hi Josh-- Your nephew will give you his perspective due to his experience. There is an income division in Vermont (this includes "whites") as there is in the rest of the country. No different.

Policy brief: http://publicassets.org/library/publications/reports/vermonts-middle-class-the-facts/

This income disparity has been linked to current "achievement gaps". This does not change the fact that blacks and hispanic groups tend to be disproportionately represented in lower income groups. However, recent research from standford is trying to see how much of the "achievement gap" is related to income.

Anonymous said...

My friend's school had a huge influx of Russian, Albanian & Ukrainian students move in over a just a couple of years. Her ELL program was filled to the brim, requiring additional support services. But because all the kids were labeled as "white", she was looked upon as a complainer, and her school was not seen as one of the ones needing support, or even one that was very diverse. It wasn't until they actually paid attention to her language scores/data and not the race/ethnicity data that she was finally able to get additional support from her district. Took a lot of effort on her part to get them to look at one dataset and ignore the other.

And I liked my HS-only district in Phoenix. That's the way most of urban AZ is structured - only 4 districts that I can think of w/in Phx metropolitan area have "unified" districts (meaning K-12). I think there are some major advantages when your district only has to focus on K-8 or 9-12. Not spread so thin.


Anonymous said...

You're right, MT. The states of KY and WV are good examples. Yet in SPS, my child was explicitly taught about "whites" and "others," as if that was the difference of primary importance.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the accurate information about Bellevue, Zip. I based my information on
a Seattle Times story (which I should have known wasn't a good idea), but was unable to find anything else when I googled.

This looks like the latest for Lake Washington. There may be something more current
that I didn't find. Seems all staffing during the school day is prohibited by donations, which is probably a good way to avoid loopholes.

From 2008. SPS, as usual, is late to the table. The regulations, like Bellevue's, are
succinct and clear. (Why does SPS allow things to metasasize so frequently?)

"Not be used to supplement staffing during the school day or to fund district-provided stipends. Donations may be used to fund stipends to support extracurricular clubs and/or activities not funded by the district and must be paid in accordance with district negotiated agreements through district payroll."

Following district policies for hiring would limit donors (as example by TechyMom on another thread) from self-selecting for hiring committees and therefore having an outsized influence in hiring decisions. This is not unusual in SPS in terms of donor clout, but is a dubious way to do business in a public entity that has strict laws about EEOC compliance and fair practices.



TechyMom said...

To be clear, I was not on a hiring committee, and I don't think there was one. Anyone who showed up for the pta meeting where budget was discussed got to vote. I met the teachers after they were hired.

This was one of the few positive and empowering experiences I had with SPS. We should be working to make that sort of experience available to more families, not removing it when we find examples of it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification, TechyMom. I'm sorry I misunderstood/misrepresented your post.


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Pedergraham said...

As someone who lived in Vermont for 13 years, this is a farce! You cannot compare SPS to anything in Vermont. We lived in the second largest community in VT and had a superintendent for our 800-student school district. School choice does not really exist, when each schooL district is really one town, with one elementary school. Our property taxes were incredibly high. All for educational costs. The best thing we ever did for our child's education was to leave VT.