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Vermont students: Top of the class or not?

In mid-October, the Rutland Herald reported that "Vermont's students are at the top of the class" in math, according to this year's federal NAEP tests of 4th and 8th graders, placing behind only New Hampshire and Massachusetts in numerical proficiency.

Education Commissioner Vilaseca was jubilant, calling his students well-performing-the same self-congratulatory wording quoted in the Herald as used by Rutland Superintendent Moran and Barstow School Principal Prescott.

What they curiously didn't mention was the percentage of their young charges actually scoring "proficient". That number is 51 percent. The other 49 percent didn't achieve the "ability to function at grade level" measure, and are less-than-proficient in math. When you add in the other disciplines -reading, science, history, and so on-the overall proficiency accomplishment of the public schools is in the 30 to 40 percent range.

If you, in the private sector, produced a product line at least half of which don't work as expected you'd experience customer dissatisfaction and lose market share in a hurry. The statistics show public education is losing market share to non-public alternatives, although surprisingly slowly, given a product-inadequacy rate of half in some disciplines, about 2/3 in others.

Just because your competitor across the stateline has an even higher unsatisfactory percentage won't help your sales, particularly when your cost of production is among the highest in the nation. Under those circumstances, maybe your best option is to advertise your output as "excellent", knowing it isn't, and hope your choice of language is convincing. That, I suppose, explains why so many public schools in Vermont (and other states as well) display the word "excellence" on their front-lawn bulletin board.

I also suppose that Vermont's educrats were deeply influenced by a youthful viewing of the 1965 movie "My Fair Lady", a remake of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion", the stageplay-to-movie version in which Professor Henry Higgins selects a forlorn specimen of the London underclass off the mean streets and raises her socio-economic status by teaching her to speak English properly.

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