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.From the letter (partial and bold mine):
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.
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.
Conclusions. 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.