ACSU: Shut up and agree part one

Since this is an opinion column and not an objective news report, I can dispense with the once-mandatory Five Ws of journalism who, what where, when, why. As a columnist, I can also take a circuitous path in introducing my two-part discussionthe Addison County Supervisory Unions annual report and its haughty shut up and agree with me approach to the public. I will start with an example seen on C-SPAN television. Suppose you went to a seminar and the instructors decided to change the subject? Well, thats what happened recently when C-SPAN scheduled a promising session with three education experts on the subject of higher K-12 quality leading to better U.S. educational competitiveness (and leading to higher salaries and a better national economy at home). The C-SPAN presentation, featuring national education expert Eric Hanushek, was titled Learn More, Earn More. The two other participants joining Hanushek were Helen Ladd of Duke University and Clive Belfield of Queens College. From what I could see, Ladd and Belfield werent interested in improvements made in the achievement potential of students already at the upper end of the test-score spectrum; instead, they continually steered the discussion to their preferred ideological grounds: the bottom quartile of students and the root cause of why more taxpayer investment in public schools is needed. Watching the C-SPAN program was a little like going to a seminar advertised as a discussion about the discovery of the New World, only to be subjected to a harangue about how Columbus was an evil white guy. Whether Hanushek was set up to be outnumbered 2-to-1, I know not. The sponsoring think tankan outfit calling itself Strong American Schools funded by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisorsposts on its Edin08 website a fairly non-specific call for non-partisan public awareness and advocacy effort aimed at elevating discussion amongst American leaders Interestingly, the website is a welcome focus on student test-score comparisons, domestic and international; its mission statement says: We have to act now to improve education before more American students lose out on the best jobs, hurting our economy, and impacting each and every one of us. Upon reflection, SAS may be politically more to the right than to the left, if judged by its use of impacting as a verb form. I am old enough to recall the opprobrium dumped on the political right and Dwight Eisenhower, in particular, for his non-scholarly use of the word finalize as a verb formthis by the self-described more educated political left. But I digress. Hanushek has been well known, if not exactly admired, in some education circles for several decades. Since his early years at the University of Rochester, and more recently at the Hoover Institution, hes been engaged in a career of extremely unwelcome statistical analysis of the test-score versus class-size debate. He has concluded, with evidentiary certainty, that recent class-size reduction efforts have raised costs but not test scores (the frequently misrepresented Tennessee Star Study included here). During the C-SPAN presentation, Hanushek was attempting to make the point thatas the test scores of the better American students fall behind those of the international competitionthe better jobs, earnings, and gains in standard-of-living go elsewhere. However, he didnt fare too well making that point. Hanusheks co-presenters were far more enthused by the travails of the bottom quartile, discussing everything from the need for more pre-K to the need for better nutrition (and of course lots of government intervention at the family level). The panel fussed over whether cognitive skills could be measured and how much more important non-cognitive skills really are to the equation. Hanushek tried to make the point that gains in national economic performance depends upon the top quintile, not the bottom quartilebut his co-presenters werent having any of it. Heand weare supposed to just shut up and agree. My opinion: it was quite tendentious. With that perspective, these folks are in the mainstream of public-education philosophy. For a local example of this, consider the recently published annual report of the Addison Central Supervisory Union which is required by state statute (16 VSA 165) to report to taxpayers on comparative data for cost effectiveness. Yes, there are nine pages on the subject at the end of the report. Unfortunately (or, more precisely, deliberately) nowhere in those nine pages is there a single mention of test scores as related to class size; hence, readers are unable (by design?) to see for themselves what the spending on staffing and equipment has produced in terms of actual improvement in student achievement. Instead, the data presented focuses on various aspects of staffing in instructional and support roles. Theres nary a word on what those expenditures actually produce in terms of measurable student productivity, the very topic discussed by Eric Hanushek. More on the 2008 ACSU Annual Report next week. Martin Harris is an ex-Vermonter living in Tennessee.

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