Sunday, November 17, 2013

Are American Schools Really Easier Today?

“When I was in school, . . .”
William J. Mathis
        “When I was in school, kids worked harder and were better behaved,” declared the young man just seven years out of high school. “Son, every generation says schools have gone to pieces since their day,” I replied. “A friend said his college professor colleagues were complaining about the ‘alarming’ degeneration. ‘Kids today don’t know how to write a clear sentence, lack knowledge of history and don’t even know when the Civil war occurred!’”
        This widely held folk legend deserves a closer look. What are the facts?
        The federal government just reported that Vermont, compared to all states and nations, ranked seventh in the world on science and math. The nations that outscored us were the test-obsessed nations of South Korea and Japan. Three oriental city-states also posted higher scores and only Massachusetts, among the United States, scored better.
        National assessment scores in reading and mathematics have gone up for all groups in the United States. Black students, as a group, are scoring where white students scored thirty years ago. In writing, the Center on English Language Learning reports that writing scores have “kept steady” over time.
        As for the “dumbed down” curriculum, a new study in Educational Researcher dug through 117 reading textbooks in use from 1905 to 2004. Reading complexity either stayed at the same level or became more difficult across the century.
        High school risky behavior is generally going down and children’s well-being is second in the nation. High school graduation rates are also second in the nation.
        So, why do we constantly hear schools have gone down-hill? First, is the point of view of the speaker. It is probably just as well that most of our high school writing has been lost. (Mine would be rather embarrassing). Regarding history and social studies, high school is just the beginning. As folks continue to learn and experience more of the world, they unconsciously ratchet up their expectations and judge by a higher standard.
        As for the greatly lamented “unprepared” college students, only the top scoring 45% enrolled in higher education in 1960. Today, 73% of Vermont children attend higher education -- although fewer graduate. As we dip deeper into the pool, we are comparing different cohorts.
        Then, there’s the “school failure” industry. Charter school advocates, test manufacturers and politicians profit by manufacturing bad news. They are ably assisted by the media. For example, with the release of the latest national assessment scores, instead of touting the record high scores, ABC led with the theme of “not good enough.” The media did not report that the standard is set so high that no nation in the world could have even half their students meet it.
        Yet, there are troubling signs:
·         For high schools, the conventional practice is to ability group students into different tracks. This system is supported by many teachers and parents. The rude effect is that some students receive a better education than others. This leads to educational inequities and segregation.
For example, except for a small percent of students in higher level writing workshops, students do not get the opportunities for extensive writing and constructive feedback. Forty percent of twelfth graders seldom write a paper greater than three pages in length. If the teacher’s load is heavy, then extensive writing doesn’t happen.
·         The over-emphasis on standardized reading and math tests has also led to an unbalanced curriculum. Arts and humanities courses have been reduced or eliminated so that schools could concentrate on “high-stakes” outcomes. Financial pressures also squeeze “non-essential” subjects. Even within reading and math, the focus has been reduced to easily tested lower-level skills. Testing higher level skills is an oft-touted claim of the national testing consortia but the reality is that “standardized creativity” is an oxymoron.
·         Even with Vermont’s very equitable funding formula, our low income communities provide less in educational spending and programs. Granted, this discrepancy is far greater in other parts of the country.
·         The increasing income gap represents the greatest of problems for our society and our schools. Pretending that adopting higher standards and more tests, by themselves, will close the achievement gap is an irrational distraction.
        So are the schools worse than they were in my day? Not by any external measure. In all kinds of ways, they are much better. But, we must focus on the real problems. Within the schools, we must provide more equitable opportunities. Federal and state governments must balance their obsession with test scores and concentrate on improving teachers and support systems. And society must address income disparity if we are to have good schools and a functioning democracy.   
William J. Mathis is the Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center and a former Vermont school superintendent. He lives in Goshen. The views expressed are his own.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Let's Not Define Our Schools by Testing

Washington West Supervisory Union All-Staff Inservice
Superintendent Brigid Scheffert’s Opening Remarks

October 14, 2013

I would like to have the opportunity to share a few thoughts about the State of the Union - Where has WWSU been and where are we going. All seven schools had successful openings without too many unanticipated events. As always, we are very busy at this time of the year, but this year, in particular, presents some real and different challenges. 

As we start our year together, the thing I most want to say is I can never remember a time in my almost 30 years of practicing when we have had to focus on so many required changes and initiatives all at the same time. Going forward, we will be expected to successfully implement many significant changes as a result of a number of education bills passed last May in Montpelier, and the revision of the new School Quality Standards, such as…

The Dangers and Ramifications of Sexting by Students

From Brigid Scheffert the WWSU Superintendent of Schools:
September 10, 2013
As the school year begins, administrators across Vermont will once again focus on student safety. Our Washington West Supervisory Union administrative team spent the better part of a day in August reviewing and revising the safety plans and protocols for all seven of our schools. However, this year my thoughts and concerns about keeping our students safe extend far beyond unwanted intruders. In particular, I have been dwelling on the use of social media. For years we have written policies and procedures about acceptable use, developed student contracts, and have tried to educate students about the dangers of the internet. Parents do the same. Usually, the focus is one of stranger danger, falsehoods, and inappropriate sites.
I am really writing today to reach out to both our student body and parent community with a large warning about sexting. Actually, the topic is much larger than sexting in the way most of us define it. Sexting, the sending of naked pictures of oneself to others, usually friends, has taken on a whole new meaning with a huge set of unintended, harmful consequences that can, in just a push of a button, nearly destroy a young person’s future career and possibly life.

Op Ed Federal Nutrition Guidelines-Impact


As a Superintendent of Schools, I am speaking out to report on and fight for hungry students in Vermont, but not likely for the reasons most readers might think. It’s time to tell the real story here. This fall, schools throughout Vermont began grappling with the implementation of the new federal nutrition guidelines for school food service programs. This has got to be the worst case of serious unintended consequences resulting from the best of intentions I have seen in my 28 years in public education and here’s why.

Like NCLB, we are once again faced with one size fits all legislation that does not consider the vast differences between a state like Vermont and other states. But, what is far worse is the inability for those individuals working in positions of authority within our wonderful state to not recognize and advocate for more reasonable flexibility in implementing these standards, knowing that the needs of individual communities differ, and so do the individual needs of students.