Wonderful vessels of clay

Consider this hypothetical: Youre in the pottery business, and its your task to take raw clay and shape it into reasonably well-detailed little chalices. Years ago you accomplished this with a fairly low production cost per unit and a fairly high output quality standard, but in recent years your unit costs have gone way up while your reject percentages failed to meet the standardhave likewise gone way up.

Presently, the federal agency which monitors chalice quality reports that 23 of your output doesnt meet the standard at various points along the production line, and therefore youve been prohibited from advertising your product as excellent any more.

All of that describes the postWWII history of public education, with the exception that the feds who monitor student achievement arent allowed to forbid educators from calling their students the product of high standards even though most of them arent. In fact educators arent even required to publish, locally, the federal test results, and have been encouraged to go out and buy their own tests, which seem to show a higher product quality. Heres a pair of examples:

One comes from Junius Canitri, president of the Vermont School Boards Association. Last Thursday he wrote an open letter to Vermont newspaper editors (see this weeks Letters to the Editor) in which he spoke glowingly of the achievement of our students, accomplishment in math and reading, and affording the high standard.

Canitri also wrote enthusiastically of Vermonts first-in-the-nation small-class-size pursuit (true) as if it were the proximate cause of high student achievement (false), and which, in fact, is disproven by the actual federal NAEP test numbers themselves, which predictably he chooses not to recite in his letter.

Here they are, for example, in the 4th grade reading category, for 2005: Vermont students, 227 out of a possible 500, US average 217, meaning that about 23 of both groups have shown that they cant make proficient, which equates to functioning at grade levels. Its worse when you look at the ethnic breakdown: Vermont as a statistically all-white state scores 227, but the U.S. white fourth grader average is 228. Not great, but a point better than Vermont. And yet Mr. Canitri describes Vermonts schools chalice output as excellent.

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